Season Preview ’08: Quarterbacks

The biggest question for Notre Dame heading into last season was who was going to be lining up under center when the Irish opened up against Georgia Tech. Fast forward a year and there is no question as to who will be taking the first snap against San Diego State – Jimmy Clausen is the unquestioned starting quarterback for Notre Dame this season. There is, however, a debate as to who will be listed #2 on the depth chart behind Clausen between senior Evan Sharpley and incoming freshman Dayne Crist.

Despite what some in the media and the blogosphere say, Jimmy Clausen’s freshman season was much more successful than they would have you believe. Because of the hype surrounding Clausen, anything short of an All American season would have been labeled as a bust by those who are hoping Clausen fails at Notre Dame.

While Clausen’s numbers were modest for someone who started 9 games, he was far being the primary reason for Notre Dame’s offensive struggles. In fact, as far as true freshman quarterbacks go, Clausen was pretty impressive considering the situation he was playing in. With the offensive line Notre Dame put on the field in 2007, Johnny Unitas would have had a hard time moving the chains. Factor in all of the drops the Notre Dame receivers had in ’07, and Clausen’s 7 touchdowns to 6 interceptions really don’t look bad at all.

What made Clausen’s freshman season a success was his ability to avoid the big mistake. Any true freshman quarterback is going to make their fair share of mistakes and Clausen did as well. What he didn’t do, however, was make many head scratching mistakes that most true forsh signal callers are prone to make.

Clausen did hold onto the ball too long and took a number of sacks that should have been avoided and his arm strength was not where it needed to be thanks in part to his off-season elbow procedure. Still, at times, Clausen shows glimpses of the promise that made him the #1 rated quarterback in the class of 2007. One of those instances came against Duke when Clausen fired a laser beam to David Grimes perfectly between two defenders. It was one throw, but it was a throw most college quarterbacks could not have made.

A full off-season in the weight room without any limitations has Clausen a lot closer to the quarterback most were expecting to see from day one. Reports coming out of spring practice were that Clausen’s arm was much stronger than it was during the season and everyone got to see a glimpse of that during the Blue Gold game. While his completion percentage was rather lower, he had much greater velocity on his passes than did at any point during the season.

Some like to discredit that he was not 100% last year as a reason Clausen was as impressive as most had hoped. “Why was he playing if he wasn’t 100%?” is the general argument used and it is a valid question. The problem, however, wasn’t whether or not Clausen was at 100%. The problem was that while he medically cleared to play, his arm strength was where it needed to be due the time he lost in the weight room. It is very hard to make up lost time in the weight room once the season starts so while he was he was technically 100% healthy, his arm strength was never quite 100% throughout the season.

Offensive line and arm strength woes aside, Clausen’s stats compare very favorably with the freshman year stats of Brady Quinn – the last Notre Dame true freshman to start at quarterback – as well as Georgia’s Matt Stafford whose name comes up most frequently on the message boards in comparison to Clausen. Stafford’s name comes up because he played a lot for Georgia as a true freshman in 2006.

Unlike Clausen, both Stafford and Quinn had more interceptions than touchdowns in their freshman seasons. Quinn threw 15 interceptions to 9 touchdowns as frosh while Stafford tossed 13 picks compared to 7 touchdowns in his rookie season.

If Clausen’s learning curve is anything like Quinn’s or Stafford’s we should expect to see some marked improvement from him in 2008. Quinn cut his interceptions down to 10 while increasing his touchdowns to 17. Stafford cut down his interception total to 10 as well while increasing his touchdowns to 19.

Because Clausen threw a lot fewer passes than either Stafford or Quinn, it’s very likely that his interception will increase even if he is dramatically improved. If he could have a similar touchdown to interception total as Stafford and Quinn and end the year with 16-20 touchdowns with 8-10 interceptions, his sophomore season will be a success. Considering that, unlike Stafford and Quinn, Clausen actually threw fewer picks than touchdowns as a true freshman, it is not out of the realm of possibility that his touchdown to interception ratio will be even better than theirs if the Irish offensive line and receivers do their part.

While Clausen’s improvement is certainly the biggest challenge facing Charlie Weis and quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus this off-season, developing depth behind him is almost as vital. In 2007, the Irish offensive line surrendered 58 sacks. If Clausen ends up taking that kind of beating again in 2008, Notre Dame will need good backup plan in case Clausen goes down with any sort of injury.

Fighting for the backup role behind Clausen will be senior Evan Sharpley and incoming freshman Dayne Crist.

Sharpley started against Navy and USC when Clausen went down in 2007 and saw action against Georgia Tech, Purdue, and Boston College as well. For the season, he completed 55% of his passes (77 of 140) for 736 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions. He was very solid and at times made some pretty big plays when he looked like the play was doomed.

Against Purdue, Sharpley saw action in relief of the injured Clausen and threw two touchdown passes to Golden Tate. His play against Purdue was enough to get him starts against USC and Navy while Clausen say with the injury. The USC game was a complete nightmare in all aspects of the game so I won’t even bring that up, but against Navy Sharpley was only able to throw for 140 yards and took four sacks. Still, he played well enough that one would think that it’s a no brainer that he would be the backup this year. Sharpley’s baseball career could cloud the issue though.

This past spring, Sharpley enjoyed a breakout season with the Irish baseball team. If his progress on the diamond continues this spring, is there any chance Sharpley would come back for a potential fifth year in 2009? Common sense would suggest he wouldn’t, especially if incoming five star recruit Dayne Crist is as good as advertised. If that is the case, does Weis go with Sharpley as his #2 quarterback this fall or does he go with the incoming frosh Crist?

The answer is probably a little of column a, a little of column b. Hopefully, the only reason Weis even needs to insert a backup this fall is in mop up duty. Based on last season’s offensive performance though, that might be a little optimistic thinking. If Weis were to have to insert a backup because of an injury to Clausen, he’ll be forced into a difficult decision – go with the steady handed Sharpley or burn a year of eligibility on the next quarterback of the future for the Irish.

Should Clausen get banged up and need a couple plays or a couple series or even a game or two off, I think we’ll see Weis go with Sharpley. Should, God forbid, an injury force the Irish to use a backup for an extended period of time, I think we’ll see Weis go with Crist to begin grooming him as Clausen’s heir apparent.

The situation is very different from a year ago, but no easier to manage on Weis’s end. If he goes with a plan similar to what I have hypothesized, how does he then divide the snaps up in practice? While Clausen is entrenched as the clear cut #1 starter, he is still entering just his second year of college and will need all the snaps he can get. On the same hand, Weis also has learned just how important it is to develop a backup quarterback on this level after last season’s fiasco.

It would seem rather obvious that Clausen will get the lion’s share of snaps in practice, but what will be done with the remainder? In 2006, Demetrius Jones and Zach Frazer split time running the show team offense in practice and look at how well that prepared both of them for the quarterback derby last year. Whatever snaps are left over from Clausen, I would hope would be split between Sharpley and Crist evenly. As Weis learned with Notre Dame’s quarterback situation last year, it is important to get more than just your backup snaps whenever possible on the college level.

So, while there isn’t a highly publicized quarterback competition this fall, the development of the quarterbacks on the Irish roster is just as, if not more important, as it was a year ago. Because Notre Dame ended up losing two would be juniors at the position this year after last year’s competition, the Irish are in a precarious situation at the backup position this year and next again. Has Weis learned the importance of developing all of his quarterbacks? Let’s hope so.

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