The Next Level

Coming into his second spring at Notre Dame, but his first as the starting quarterback for the Irish, one detail is certain for Jimmy Clausen — the early enrollee is thinking about his team, and its success more than anything.

When asked how he would measure his individual progress towards his personal goals, the answer came easy to Clausen — it's all about the progress of the team as a whole.

"For myself, really its about the team," Clausen said. "You know, if I'm doing good the team's doing good. If the team's doing good then I'm doing good. I think it goes both ways and we're a team here and we're just one."

After starting the majority of last season as a freshman, Clausen has gone through some growing pains, suffering through 34 sacks and picking up a number of nagging injuries along the way. His time under center, however, was an excellent method of getting the young talent some experience in the rougher aspects of football. In his high school career at Oaks Christian in California, Clausen's jersey barely hit the ground on the way to his perfect 42-0 record as a starter.

That seems like a distant time ago for Clausen, who continuously had to pick himself up off the ground last season. "In high school I really didn't get hit that much," he said. "Coming into college, and getting banged around a little bit, having the guys see that I can take a hit, and stuff like that. But it wasn't me just taking the beating, it was the whole team. We didn't have a great season, but we learned from that, and its just going to make us that much better."

Clausen saw his first action against Georgia Tech in the season opener on Sept. 1 with the game already out of reach. Although his play didn't lead to any scores, the freshman came in and moved the ball, albeit against the Yellow Jackets second team.

However, Irish head coach Charlie Weis knew he had a special talent on his hands, eventually naming him the starting quarterback the following week.

"The two main things besides the off-the-field things, the two main things are, he knows how to read coverages and he's tough," Weis said. "He got beat up pretty good but he knows how to read coverages and you could see that as a quarterback's coach. When you can see that a guy really understands that, ‘Hey, that was cover two; it was weak-side rotation; it was strong-side rotation.' He already knows how to read coverage, which gives him a big advantage over a lot of young, more inexperienced quarterbacks. So that on top of that he obviously showed some will power and stamina because he took a whole bunch of hits, those are the things I would say are the knowns, not the unknowns."

It has been this early amount of playing time and experience that had helped Clausen develop. Last season being Notre Dame's worst ever, one would think that not many positives would result from the 3-9 nightmare. For Clausen, its simply a matter of growing pains and a learning process.

"I think just gaining experience," he said of the most valuable lesson from last season. "There's nothing better than playing on Saturday's. That's how you get experience. It's kind of like practice, but in the game situations, that's the real thing."

Weis isn't the only Irish coach taking notice, either. Notre Dame quarterbacks coach, Ron Powlus also spoke of the talent and leadership qualities Clausen possesses.

"Jimmy's a very good quarterback," Powlus said. "There's no doubt about it. Physically he's strong. He does things very well physically, and mentally we all try and grow and learn from year to year, and he has. The experience he gained last year playing and being under center, getting snaps, seeing coverage, seeing fronts, and running the offense. When you couple that with an off-season study program that he did and you know really diving into the knowledge of the offense, there's no doubt that we're trying to help him develop. He's a hard-working kid and he's very dedicated to his success and the team's success, and that's our objective — just to continue to put him in the position to have success, and get the whole team success."

Despite all the accolades, both Clausen and his coaches know that the freshman can improve on several aspects of his game. However, one part of Clausen's character is his ability to lead the offensive unit, both in the huddle and off the field.

"Last year, I knew the offense, but not to the point that I am right now," Clausen said. "And I'm still getting more knowledge of the offense. If guys need help, I think that's part of what coach Weis was talking about, the leadership part. I can be able to tell them what's going on."

Coach Powlus has been paying special attention to Clausen in the first two practices — partly because of junior signal caller Evan Sharpley splitting time with the Irish baseball team. Starting this spring, Clausen has been the only scholarship quarterback on the field for Notre Dame, giving the freshman a majority of the repetitions in practice. Although there is a greater deal of fatigue, Clausen knows that this experience will only benefit his play.

"It gets a little tiring here and there," Clausen spoke of taking the majority of the snaps. "Oh, it's great. The more reps I can get, the better I'm going to be. I'm doing this right now, and Evan is doing baseball, and whenever he can be back, he's going to be back. I'm just trying to get every rep that I can."

Although it remains to be seen how the added exposure will affect Clausen, his position as the clear starting quarterback will allow him to devour the playbook and understand the system better.

To improve on-the-field chemistry, Clausen and his teammates have established a number of goals, with the emphasis on creating a self-less group of players with one focus — winning.

"I'm going out each and every day trying to help this team get better," he said. "I'm trying to help myself get better, but most importantly this team. Things are about the team here, and I'm just trying to help this team get better."

One example of Clausen's drive to help the Irish improve from last season is the off-season regiment he went through to become stronger. At his press conference Wednesday, Weis said that Clausen has added 17 pounds of muscle. The freshman knows that this bulk will help him become more of a presence on the field.

"It helps a lot," Clausen said. "In game situations it helps break tackles. It helps me keep my quickness, my speed. It gives me more velocity on the ball."

Looking ahead to the season, Clausen couldn't help but smile when asked about incoming freshmen receivers, Mike Floyd, Deion Walker and John Goodman.

"Yeah, they're great guys," Clausen said of his future teammates. "I keep in touch with most of them, ever since they came on their visits and stuff like that. We're real excited for those guys to get here in the summertime and get going."

Clausen's dedication to win is so palpable, that he even aided in the recruitment of Dayne Crist, who could eventually battle him for playing time at the same position, citing Weis as one of the main reasons.

"Me and Dayne actually went to elementary school together," Clausen said. "So we have a good relationship. We talk and hang out, stuff like that in California. One thing I told him was the reason why I came here was because of coach Weis, and coach Weis can take you to the next level that you want to get to. And I was like, ‘I know you want the same thing that I want and I want you to come here, not just because I'm here, you know, don't come here because I'm here, but come here because he's the best one to take you to the next level.' We had a few heart to hearts about that and he made the right choice."

For Clausen and the Irish only one thing remains in sight — the next level.


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