Growing Pains

How does one eliminate the memory of perhaps the worst season in the storied history of a college football program from one year to the next? It starts with a change of attitude, and is followed by confidence, self-belief and the ability to lead. In the case of Notre Dame, its quarterback embodies all of the above.

Following the media day trend that head coach Charlie Weis instilled in the minds of his players and staff, there is no point to dwell on the past. "This is where we are," Weis said. "This is August 2008. We're talking about 2008 only. We're moving forward, a la Brett Favre. We're diving right in and trying to get off to a fast start."

Therefore, when examining the expectations and the evolution of sophomore signal-caller Jimmy Clausen from last year to the present, the past is merely a bump in the road for the second-year quarterback. To prove that Clausen is just as hungry as anyone to erase the numbers, "three and nine" from recollection, all one has to do is learn about his physical progress throughout the off-season.

When Clausen was asked if he weighed in around 215 pounds, he sharply responded, "217," to ensure that his efforts would not go unnoticed. "I feel real good," he said. "I feel a little heavier. I think my speed has gone up a little bit. My legs have gotten stronger, so I feel real good right now."

As soon as the clock expired at Stanford Stadium, a rigorous off-season workout plan was implemented, in which Clausen was determined to reshape his body from what appeared to belong to a freshman quarterback into that of a seasoned veteran. Part of the regiment required him to return home to California and work with quarterback guru, Steve Clarkson.

"My first week back, I just relaxed and hung out with my family," Clausen said. "And then I started getting to work. I started throwing and working out with my trainer and quarterback coach, Steve."

Thus far, through the first four days of practice, the Oaks Christian product certainly passes the eyeball test. According to Weis, now his emerging sophomore can focus on the mental aspects of the game.

"Now instead of having to concentrate on the physical as well as the mental and the team spot, you know, team leadership part, I think you're going to see him progress dramatically in the other two areas because he's in so much better shape physically," he said.

Clausen will be the first to admit that coming into last season, his fall practices were severely limited because of the bone condition in his elbow that required surgery. Although there was a great deal of mystery surrounding his physical health last year, he revealed that he was restricted to even the most basic exercises.

"Last year, I couldn't even throw in the summertime," he said. "Because of my elbow and stuff like that. This summer I was doing everything right with the team. Throwing the ball in 7-on-7's and just working out. Last year I couldn't lift at all, because of the elbow, but this year I've been lifting ever since the summer started."

Listening to Clausen address the media, its clear that this maturation process has already commenced and is well underway.

"I'm real confident," he said. "In the spring coach Weis and coach Powlus helped me in gaining all the knowledge of the playbook and all the little things about the playbook and I feel real comfortable will my knowledge of the system."

This kind of comfort and confidence with the philosophy didn't necessarily happen overnight — or during the season for that matter. When asked if he had this same type of comfort last season, Clausen didn't hesitate to answer.

"No," he said. "It was hard, because during the season, it was going a million miles an hour. [Weis and Powlus] really helped me in the springtime to get my knowledge up and help all the guys on the team."

So what's the main difference between the Jimmy Clausen of old versus the current sophomore quarterback? Confidence — a sign of a reliable and consistent signal caller.

"I feel more confident in my knowledge of the playbook," he said. "I think that's the biggest thing. Like I said, last year, I really didn't know much about the playbook, my hot sites, the protections, and I think I've got a pretty good handle on it now."

All this added poise won't go in vain this season, as it will only open up more options and allow Clausen to see from where the defense is attacking. "It just helps me to realize where the pressure is coming from," he said. "I can see where my outlets are, where they're blitzing from and different things like that."

Another clear signal that Clausen is developing as a team leader is his ability to take the burden of responsibility upon his shoulders, in addition to receiving some blame that may not necessarily fall to him. The struggles of the offensive line are an issue that has been drilled in the national media. So how many sacks are directly the fault of the sophomore?

"I'll take credit for all of them," he said, not thinking twice about it. "I'll take credit for all of them."

One of the nuances of this 2008 Irish squad that first strikes an observer is the solidarity among the group. Clausen, recognizing his role as the team's offensive leader, makes sure to be a part of all the activities with his teammates, whether it be a mandatory meeting, or sharing a quick meal.

"We just hang out a lot," he said. "It's not just me and the offensive guys. It's pretty much the whole team. The camaraderie on this team is real good. It's gotten a lot better and there's still room for improvement."

The progress of Clausen as a leader has culminated into his on-the-field presence as well, arguably the most important feature a quarterback should carry with him. Now when he enters a huddle, he is no longer the much-heralded freshman that everyone is hyping, but the player his teammates look to when adversity creeps in.

"I think so," he said of his teammates differing to his judgment on the field. "For every quarterback in the country, when the quarterback comes in the huddle, everyone's quiet. The quarterback's got to give the play and try to execute the play, and make it work."

For this young 2008 Irish squad trying to regain its footing as a perennial football powerhouse, that silence in the huddle could help usher in the sweet sound of success.


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