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Clausen’s learning process nearly done

Jay Fitzpatrick | Friday, October 10, 2008

One of the biggest reasons for Notre Dame’s turnaround so far this season is their new quarterback, Jimmy Clausen.

Obviously, it’s the same person, but I think we can all agree that this year’s signal caller is sort of a Jimmy Clausen, version 2.0. He’s got most the bugs and kinks out of the system.

Irish coach Charlie Weis said the new version of Jimmy Clausen debuted after sitting out the Boston College and USC games last year, when he said the “light came on” for the freshman.

Now the light is on and burning bright.

Let’s look at the facts.

First of all, the new-and-improved Clausen doesn’t go running scared every time there is a blitz. I’m sure all of you have your own personal favorite Jimmy-inexplicably-runs-out-of-bounds-holding-the-ball moment from last season. There were enough for each of us.

But this season, he has a new-found mobility that has been a huge help to the offense. This season, Clausen has lost 55 yards on the ground – all of which are accounted for in the sack yards given up. Last season? He and Evan Sharpley (with whom he split time for most of the season) ran for -447 yards, only 415 of which were from sacks.

While Clausen is by no means the next dual-threat quarterback, he is still making better decisions evading defenders.

“He’s shown an ability to shuffle in the pocket and get out of trouble and not throw the ball and throw the ball away when he’s supposed to throw the ball away,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said.

These changes are what make Clausen a quarterback and not just a thrower. He is now making split-second decisions during the game – with great results.

Clausen 2008 also gets to run the show offensively. Last season, as part of Weis’ plan for weaning his freshman quarterback into the college game, fifth-year senior center John Sullivan helped run the play-to-play aspects of the offense, such as finding the Mike (or middle) linebacker on a blitz.

But Weis said that, starting after last season ended, Clausen started to develop this necessary skill.

“He just knows that that’s something he should be doing. That’s what the really good quarterbacks do. They control the front as well as the coverage,” Weis said.

But the result of this change is the real reason that we are graced with a new Clausen this season: increased responsibility and increased confidence.

Last season, Clausen failed to play well in part because the team failed to play well. The line couldn’t protect him, the running backs strained to gain yardage, and the freshman receivers struggled to adapt to the college game.

Weis said he had to put less into the offense for his young players, which in part led to the team’s woes.

“And what’s happened is as we’ve gotten better across the board, it isn’t just at the quarterback position, it’s allowed us to do more and more with everybody. So he’s grown leaps and bounds, but he’s gotten a lot of help,” Weis said.

But part of this growing process was the serious development that Clausen and the other young players had to go through last season before they could be ready to excel this season.

“There’s not a chance in the world that we’d be 4-1 if he wouldn’t have played last year,” Weis said. “There was a whole bunch of other guys that you would have liked to not play, but I’m glad they did because those guys right now are helping us.”

Clausen’s freshman experiences – and struggles – are the best thing that could have happened for his and the team’s development.

“Now he’s not just the California freshman at quarterback. Now he’s a leader on the offense,” Weis said of his quarterback’s development.

Last season, Clausen learned how to lose. And now he can finally win.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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