Jimmy Clausen's elbow was a big topic of conversation at this time last year. Now, the only time it comes up is to talk about how healthy it is. Clausen was able to hit the weight room hard this offseason after being limited last year and the physical health of the sophomore signal-caller is a main reason why some believe that he could have a breakout year. But just as important as Clausen's physical development is, his mental progression could be even more significant.
"He understands a little bit more about blitz protection. One of the problems as a freshman is that it's really difficult to understand where your hots and your sights are coming from, how you have to identify the Mike to protect yourself," Notre Dame offensive coordinator Michael Haywood said. "He's doing a much better job with that at this point and time."
Clausen confirmed exactly what his coach said.
"The biggest thing for me last year were the hots and sights when the defense is blitzing," he said. "I really didn't know the protections last year as well as I should have and I think I really have a good grasp on that now. (The game has) slowed down a lot, it's just going out there and playing football."
One of the most important elements of learning the game is understanding when to take chances and when to play it safe.
"You obviously want to make every throw out there, but in order to be a good quarterback, you've got to know your limits and (sometimes) just drop the ball down to the back and let the back run around," Clausen said. I'm trying to fit some in, but in some cases I'm just getting the ball to the back and letting the back run around."
Clausen says that he does not have to try to do too much because he has plenty of confidence in the players surrounding him on offense.
"(The receivers) are coming along. David's leading the group and they're making plays each and every day, getting open," Clausen said. "All I've got to do is just get them the ball. That's the easiest thing for a quarterback is to get the ball to your playmakers, whether it's running backs, receivers or tight ends and just let them do what they do."
The offensive line took a lot of the blame for the offense's struggles last year, but Clausen has faith in the big fellas as well, especially after this week's first practice with full pads.
"I saw them getting after it. The offensive line was getting down and dirty and the running backs were hitting the holes and making plays and that's what we need," he said. "To be able to set up the pass, we have to be able to run the ball. The line is doing a great job of that and the running backs are doing a great job as well."
Clausen's personality has already helped him to earn the confidence of his teammates.
"I think Jimmy's a good leader because he has a certain air about him that guys tend to flock to him," Haywood said. "They like being around him, they like hanging out with him and those are the guys that are lining up and playing with you on every down. It carries over from off the field to on the field."
Tempo has been a big topic around the Fighting Irish this week and Clausen talked about why that is important.
"In order to get real good as a football team, you have to practice the way that you're going to play. In order to do that you have to have a real high tempo and your juices got to be flowing just like it is during gameday," he said. "I think we're starting to get that and starting to come along as a team."
The offensive installation is coming along faster than it did last year with plenty of veteran, albeit young, players back.
"Each day we're just installing stuff to get a big menu of different kind of plays. The coaches will pick and choose for a gameplan," Clausen said. "Right now, we're just going out practicing and getting better at everything we do. We're running the ball real well right now and throwing it good. It's a pretty good balanced offense right now.
"We're pretty far along. We're finding different things and like I said, going out everyday and trying to get ready for Sept. 6."
O-LINE GAINING CONFIDENCE: After yielding a school-record 58 sacks last year and averaging just 75.3 rushing yards last year, the egos of the Notre Dame offensive linemen may need to be rebuilt more so than any other position on the roster. But, judging just from what the line has been saying so far, that should not be a problem.
"I think we're coming along well. We're definitely a really good, cohesive unit. I think we'll be ready to go once the season starts," junior right guard Chris Stewart said.
Junior Sam Young plays next to Stewart at right tackle and says that the two have become close.
"He's a great guy. He's a very, very intelligent guy, he kind of makes me seem dumb sometimes, but he's a great guy to be around. Being able to play next to him is really great," Young said. "We've gotten to know each other very well, sitting next to each other in meetings, joking around. At the same time, if something happens on a play, he'll be able to say, ‘Hey, this is what you did,' or vice versa. It really helps having that connection."
Young has been called the leader of the line, but says that he does not consider himself any more of a leader than any of the other guys up front.
"Not only myself, but the rest of my linemates are all leaders," said Young, who followed with a hypothetical situation about one of the linemen struggling through practice. "The great thing about the offensive line is someone is there to pick him up. We don't have just one guy who is just the leader, we've got all five guys, who are willing to step in and step up and kind of put that extra weight on their shoulders and get them going."
That cohesion is important for the line, but it spreads through the entire team, according to Young.
"Any time the offensive line has camaraderie, that's a good first step. Being all on the same page, kind of thinking the same thought, we're a real tight-knit unit," he said. "What's great about this team is that doesn't stop with the offensive line, that continues through the offense, through the defense, through the special teams and it's in the entire team."
Young wants to see the offensive line get better, but again notes that the whole team needs to improve.
"One (goal) is to play as a unit and that's not only offensive line, that's the offense and the team," he said. "As far as the offensive line, I think we need to reestablish the line of scrimmage when it comes to run-blocking and become a very dominating run team and then pass blocking, obviously just give Jimmy as much time as possible to throw the ball."
Stewart says that the line needs to become more reliable in order to improve.
"The biggest thing that we, as a unit, want to do is be consistently dependable," he said. "Each and every play, day in and day out, just being dependable, knowing that we're going to block our butts off and do the best we can to have successful plays and successful drives."
The biggest thing that the coaching staff wanted from Stewart was for him to get smaller. Stewart is down to 329 pounds, 15 pounds lighter than last season, and he can tell the difference.
"I can definitely feel it toward the end of practice when everyone is fatigued and everything," he said. "Maybe if we're running sprints and we have another drive to do, you can definitely feel it, just being able to come out of the line better, just that extra umph we get I guess."
Stewart slimmed down as a freshman, but added that he needed to learn to get used to it.
"I just focused more on the same things I did once I lost weight when I first came here. Just consistently eating correct foods, staying away from fried," he said. "Just eating healthy basically and just throwing in an extra workout here and there, an extra cardio session. When you lose a lot of weight, you have to get used to being at that weight, so you have to stay there."
Clausen noticed the work that Stewart put in over the summer.
"Chris has done a great job. In the offseason he worked real, real hard to get his weight down to a comfortable weight for him so he could play," Clausen said. "Like I said, he worked extremely hard during the offseason."
Young, listed at 330 pounds, has replaced Stewart as the heaviest player on team, earning him the nickname ‘Tubby' from Weis, but the line as a whole has come into camp in better shape.
"Having the right weight, more muscle mass, the strength definitely helps you execute blocks and helps you stand your ground a little bit better," said Young.
GRIMES A REAL LEADER: Senior wide receiver David Grimes was asked about his leadership on Thursday after several coaches and players made comments about it.
"I'm all about being genuine, being real and being myself all of the time," said Grimes, who said that he may be soft-spoken, but is not shy. "I'm not as quiet as everybody thinks I am. I like to feel things out at first and play it that way. We called a few meetings over the summer and addressed the team - me, Mo (Crum), and (David) Bruton - and told them how we felt and where we needed to be. We need to be better. Our expectations are extremely high and we don't want to settle for less."
Young thought the meetings were good for motivation.
"Usually it was just talking about how everyone needs to come together and work harder," Young said. "We had a good offseason, but I think the message was, ‘Hey, we ain't done yet and we need to continue working hard up through training camp and beyond.'"
Haywood says that the fact that Grimes produces on the field makes it easier for him to earn the respect of the rest of the team.
"I think David is doing a tremendous job. He's grabbing the bull by the ring and he's leading these young guys. He's having a really good camp," Haywood said. "When you're leading by example it really helps a lot. He's held individual meetings, and I'm not sure what has gone on in these meetings in which he's done a really job in leading guys. If we have a problem, he talks to them about it and they've gotten better. He's had all offensive guys, he's talked to individual players. I think he's doing a really good job."
The quarterback is the leader of the huddle, but Grimes is the captain of the offense, which works out perfectly according to Clausen.
"He's great. He's perfect for the offense, he's what we need," he said. "I think the biggest thing about Dave and his leadership skills is he just works so hard and he just leads by example. I think he'd say the same exact thing, it's just helping the offense out a lot."
Leadership comes with experience and maturation, at least in Grimes' case.
"As a young guy, if I made a mistake I would lose my head real fast," he said. "Now I'm an older guy, I know that I've got to put that play behind me and that another play is coming."
IT'S A 1!!!: Sophomore wide receiver Duval Kamara was finally given his #18 jersey back before Thursday's practice. Weis had given Kamara #60 to start camp because he came in overweight and said that 18 would not be returned until he weighed in at under 220.
Still, Weis was skeptical about how Kamara shed the extra pounds.
"I want to know how you go from 223 to 217 in one day," Weis joked at the start of practice. "You probably had some help, some artificial help. That's my guess."
Raeshon McNeil laughed, "Boy, he looks fast already."
WEIS TO PAY RESPECTS: Weis changed Friday's practice schedule so that he could attend the funeral of Knute Rockne's son, Jack.
The Irish were scheduled to have another day of double-sessions, but will now have just one practice in the afternoon so that Weis can go to the funeral in the morning.
No word yet as to when, or if, the Irish plan on making the practice up.