Team Preview; Quarterbacks

The 2008 fall football camp is about a month away from kicking off and it's time to look at the Irish heading into the season. Notre Dame will try to bounce back from a dismal 3-9 campaign in 2007, and better quarterback play will go a long way in turning the ship around.

Let me be clear in saying that poor quarterback play was hardly the only reason the Irish struggled last season. A quarterback cannot complete many passes when he's throwing from his backside, or his receivers drop balls or struggle to get open. But the Irish will need better quarterback play in 2008 if they want to get back to a bowl game this season.

Sophomore Jimmy Clausen is the guy heading into the 2008 season. There's no quarterback controversy to start the season like in 2007, and it's now Jimmy's team to lead. While a competition might push Clausen to new heights, I think it's important the rest of the team find a leader on offense at quarterback, and Clausen can now become that guy.

In 2007, Clausen played in 10 games, many injured, and still posted respectable numbers for a true freshmen. He completed 56 percent of his passes for 1,254 yards and seven touchdowns while throwing six interceptions. He had the most success in the last six games he played throwing for 949 passing yards and all seven of his touchdowns while throwing only three interceptions.

It can be argued that Clausen achieved those numbers against lesser competition, but what really matters is that Clausen showed he could be effective when actually given time to throw the football, all the while doing it with a very banged up throwing arm.

I don't think you can discount the fact that Clausen was definitely injured, and certainly undersized and weak due to the injury, He was also not able to lift and train a great deal in the spring and summer leading into his freshman season. After seeing Clausen earlier this summer, there's no question he's a much thicker, stronger quarterback, and that will definitely help him this season. The added strength will also help him when trying to shake off defenders in the pocket as it appeared Clausen often went down easy in 2007 when being pressured.

More importantly, Clausen was a true freshman in 2007.

The last great Irish quarterback, Brady Quinn, completed just 47.3 percent of his passes as a true freshman in 2003, but he also threw 15 interceptions while tossing nine touchdowns in 12 games played. Quinn had a somewhat different offense, but the Irish were certainly moving towards a passing offense once Quinn was inserted into the game. Quinn did throw for 1,831 yards, but he also attempted 332 passes while Clausen only attempted 177—that's almost double Clausen's attempts. Quinn also suffered from poor pass protection like Clausen in his freshman season.

How much improvement can we expect from Clausen? I think you'll see quite a bit.

Quinn followed his freshman season with a much improved sophomore season. Quinn completed 56 percent of his passes while throwing 17 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Quinn attempted more passes (353) and threw for 2,586 yards.

Another quarterback that's on a similar path to Clausen is Georgia's Matt Stafford. As a freshman in 2006, Stafford was the nation's top freshman quarterback prospect. Stafford played in all 13 games in 2006, starting the vast majority.

Stafford completed 53 percent of his passes, for 1,749 yards, while throwing seven touchdowns and 13 interceptions. Stafford also had quite a few more attempts than Clausen (256-177).

Last year, Stafford's sophomore season, saw dramatic improvement from the Bulldog signal caller. Stafford completed 56 percent of his passes, for 2,523 yards. He tossed 19 touchdowns and only 10 interceptions. Like Quinn, he also attempted quite a few more passes in his sophomore season throwing 348 compared to the 256 in his freshman season. It's quite interesting looking at Stafford's numbers compared to Quinn at the same time. They're almost identical.

Where does that leave Clausen in 2008? If healthy all year, I think you can expect anywhere from 2,500-2,800 passing yards. Most likely we'll see anywhere from 18-22 touchdowns, and probably around 10 interceptions. The better the Irish running game, the better numbers I think you'll see Clausen post this year.

Georgia averaged 177 yards rushing per game in Stafford's sophomore season. Notre Dame averaged just 127 yards rushing per game in Quinn's sophomore season. I think it will be important for Notre Dame to average 150 yards rushing in most games for Clausen to be very effective.

Behind Clausen the Irish have a very capable backup in Evan Sharpley. Sharpley is a solid leader and seems to make things happen when inserted into the game. He also seems to have the respect of his teammates, which makes him a very valuable backup in any situation. Sharpley completed 55 percent of his passes in 2007 while tossing five touchdowns and three interceptions.

What should be interesting is seeing how Charlie Weis handles the backup situation, and here's why.

Sharpley will have the availability to apply for a fifth year of eligibility next season to once again backup Jimmy Clausen if nothing changes on the depth chart throughout the year. But, with likely little playing time for Sharpley if Clausen stays healthy, and a budding baseball career, will the senior quarterback want to return for another year to sit on the sidelines, or would he be better off pursuing his baseball career? If the answer is he's not coming back, would Weis be better off giving freshman Dayne Crist the backup role this season?

It appears the Irish will not sign a quarterback in the 2009 recruiting season, so if Sharpley doesn't return for a fifth year, Weis and the Irish will only have two scholarship quarterbacks on the roster for the 2009 season. If Crist redshirts, he'll be a backup with zero game experience in what many consider to be a potentially great year for the Irish in 2009.

Weis has a tough decision on his hands in the backup role for 2008. Will it be Sharpley? Will it be Crist? Do you waste a year of eligibility for Crist by playing him in a backup role? That's a tough decision I'm glad I don't have to make.

Regardless, the Irish do have two quality, battle-tested quarterbacks heading into this season, and that's a real plus. The development of Dayne Crist will be vital for the future of Notre Dame football as there really isn't an answer behind Crist currently. The good news is Crist has all the physical tools, and is a natural born leader. Quarterback coach Ron Powlus will have plenty of talent to work with, and developing Crist will be priority No. 1, as well as helping Clausen along with the assist from Weis.

The good news for recruiting fans is that the lack of quarterback signed in 2009 will put the Irish in the driver's seat for a great prospect in the 2010 recruiting class.


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