Season in Review

The Irish finished with 7-6 record, the offense essentially disappeared late in the season, quarterback Jimmy Clausen only threw for 41 yards in a blowout loss to USC, and Clausen also threw 17 interceptions during the season. On the surface that hardly seems like a successful season.

Well, call me crazy, but on the whole I felt Jimmy Clausen had a successful sophomore season. Please continue reading before you think I've lost my mind. I'm not denying the loss of sense on my part, but I do have some good reasons (in my mind) as to why this season, despite its many disappointments, was on the whole a successful season.

There is no doubt that Clausen could have performed quite a bit better this season. You can't blame 41 yards against USC and the 4 interceptions against Boston College on inexperience alone. There were many mistakes by the Irish quarterback. Despite all the mistakes Clausen was able to silence many questions that arose during his freshman season. After coming out of high school as the nation's top player Clausen struggled throughout his freshman season. He battled injuries, a poor offensive line, inexperienced and/or ineffective wide receivers, and a tough schedule. The bright future most assumed Clausen would have began to be doubted by many.

Clausen showed the physical tools that I saw on his high school film but didn't see during his freshman year of college. It's clear that Clausen has the arm strength to make any throw. His arm strength was drastically improved in comparison to what we saw during the 2007 season. A year in the weight room certainly helped but it also made clear that his arm injury/surgery seriously affected him. The thing that separated Clausen from any other high school quarterback was that on top of his strong arm he also had tremendous accuracy. We saw plenty of that this season. Obviously Clausen needs to become more consistent but when he is on he is deadly accurate. Ask Hawaii, Purdue, and Stanford. Clausen also showed a quick release (again, when he's right). There were many times this season where we saw Clausen make big throws in key situations, whether it be early in the game against Michigan as the Irish jumped to a big lead or on the 4th down touchdown pass to David Grimes under pressure to end Purdue's comeback attempt.

Statistically Clausen was dramatically improved during the 2008 season. One big reason for his improved play was that his offensive line played much better in protection and Clausen had better weapons to throw too. But he also played a big role in the improved statistics. Clausen completed passes at a higher rate, threw touchdowns at a higher rate, and averaged over two yards more per attempt and completion (5.1 ypa to 7.2 ypa / 9.1 ypc / 11.8 ypc). The one statistic that was worse and troubling was the much higher interception percentage. Part of that was out of his control (dropped balls, missed reads by receivers) but a lot of that had to do with his confidence. It's apparent that Clausen has the utmost confidence in his own abilities but he needs to learn the difference between being confident and making a poor decision.

As previously mentioned there was a lot of progress made by Clausen this fall. The season was essentially broken down into three parts. Clausen had a very good first half of the season, a miserable second half of the season that began during the 2nd half of the North Carolina game, and a tremendous bowl game. During the 1st half of the season Clausen threw for 1631 yards, completed 61.6% of his passes, and had a 14-8 TD-INT ration. The Irish record during that stretch was 4-2. Over the 2nd half of the season Clausen threw for 1140 yards, completed 56.9% of his passes, and had a 6-9 TD-INT ratio. The completion percentage was skewed by the Navy game where Clausen went 15-18 but only threw for 110 yards. Take that game out and his completion percentage was only 54.2%. The Irish record during that time was 2-4. Another telling stat is that during the 4-2 start the Irish played four home games and only two road games. They lost both road games and won each of their home games. During the 2nd half of the season the Irish played four road games and split 2-2 (beating Washington and Navy) while going 0-2 during their two home games. Clausen's numbers were drastically different at home. During the six Irish home games Clausen threw for 1568 yards and had a 16-4 TD-INT ration. On the road he threw for only 1203 yards and had a 4-13 TD-INT ratio. That has to get drastically better for Clausen to take this team where they are capable of going during the 2009 season.

I talked previously about Clausen being able to make any throw on the field. It goes beyond that. He has the ability to make throws that few quarterbacks in college are able to make. During the Purdue game he made two throws (one an in route to Michael Floyd another a flag route to David Grimes) that you won't see many quarterbacks make. He threw the ball over and between defenders with ease. He did the same thing against Hawaii and Stanford. During the 2007 season Clausen rarely, if ever, threw a deep ball that I was impressed with. This season that changed. As a sophomore he already throws a better outside deep ball than Brady Quinn did as a senior. Over the first half of the season and against Hawaii he showed no fear throwing over the middle of the field. We saw Clausen complete seam routes to both tight ends and receivers, we saw him find Kyle Rudolph over the middle of the field in traffic, and we saw him drill in routes that couldn't be stopped. These kinds of throws show not only his ability but also his supreme confidence in those abilities. When Clausen was confident and on the Irish offense looked very, very good. When he wasn't on they were awful. Clausen makes that much of a difference.

Those are the things that have me excited about Clausen's future potential. But until he is able to improve on his mistakes and areas of weakness I'll continue to be forced to talk about what Clausen can be, rather than what he is. All season he was slow with his dropback steps, but as the defenses improved and the pressure started to build his mechanics moving in the pocket also began to deteriorate. He also started to get sloppy with his throwing mechanics. His release point became inconsistent, his footwork in the pocket got rushed and choppy, he didn't throw with the same timing and confidence, and he started to see the rush rather than feel it. Clausen also pre-determined too many throws. He reacted far too what the defense showed before the snap and not enough to what they showed after the snap. The California native also forced too many balls into tight coverage. Early in the season it was an over-confidence issue, late in the season it appeared to be a confusion issue. The inability to read defenses post-snap effectively against inferior opponents cost him when the defensive competition stepped up.

As the season wore on that confidence and swagger that we all know Clausen has seemed to disappear. I doubt seriously that Clausen ever lost confidence in himself, but it seemed evident to me that he began to lose confidence in the players around him and in the schemes being employed. Early in the season and against Hawaii when he dropped back to pass he looked confident and sure of what was going on. He threw on rhythm, he threw with authority, and he was certain of where to go. But that changed during the 2nd half of the season. There was less certainty in his mannerisms and in his play. He didn't look as confident in his drops, with his throws, or how he reacted to mistakes. There were several occasions against USC where players were open, or at least as open as they are going to be against good opponents, but Clausen wouldn't pull the trigger. This is an example of what I'm referring to. But this isn't anything personal against Jimmy Clausen, this is something that can happen to young players. In order for him to become the great player he's capable of being he needs to begin to show the confidence in his teammates and coaches (the scheme) as he does in himself.

One final area that needs to be addressed is the physical toughness of the Irish signal caller. Many so-called "experts" dropped Clausen in their final rankings because they were afraid that when the going got tough and the competition got better that Clausen wouldn't or might not be able to hold up. Despite the mistakes he's made as a player the one thing that can't be questioned at this point is his physical toughness. Clausen took an absolute beating as a freshman but kept getting up. He didn't always get up quickly though. This season despite taking a lot of shots (not nearly as many compared to 2007) Clausen showed toughness and looked much more solid during the 2008 season. He got knocked down a lot but always got up. He also battled back from mistakes, at least early in the season. I love a quarterback who throws an interception or makes a big mistake but wants the ball right back so he can atone for his error. Clausen shows that kind of attitude.

AREAS THAT NEED IMPROVEMENT

For a sophomore Clausen's mechanics are very good, but there still is much work that needs to be done in this department. First of all Clausen needs to be more efficient with the ball in his hands. At times he tends to let the ball drag, he starts to double-pump, and he begins to drop his arm on his release. This needs to be cleaned up, especially when the pressure is starting to come. There will be times against pressure that a quarterback will have to adjust his release, but when he has the time he has to be sharp with his mechanics. Early on Clausen showed this but it faded down the stretch.

Clausen's initial drop is still too slow. His first step is what hurts him. In high school he was slow because he had the wrong foot forward. I can't tell if that is still the issue at Notre Dame but I do know that he still struggles to quickly get away from the center. That has to improve, especially when he is facing teams who bring a lot of pressure. Once he begins his drop his mechanics are sound but his foot quickness is still too slow and deliberate. At times he is fine but on the whole he doesn't have light enough or quick enough feet in the pocket. This is especially true when he is forced to move around. The Irish coaches need to really drill Clausen the entire offseason and throughout the regular season on quickness drills and being lighter on his feet.

Jimmy Clausen will never be confused for Terrelle Pryor as a runner. In fact he will never be confused for Brady Quinn as a runner. But Clausen still is athletic enough to use his legs much, much better. Improved foot quickness will help to a certain degree but his issues go far deeper than just having quicker feet. His footwork breaks down the minute he is prevented from throwing on rhythm or while set up in the pocket. That must be improved by the coaches. Clausen also needs to learn to protect the ball MUCH better in the pocket and also to keep his eyes downfield as he begins to make moves in the pocket. He'll get his eyes downfield once he has cleared the pressure, which is good, but in order to really be effective moving he has to be able to feel the rush, keep his eyes downfield, and be able to throw the ball quickly. Clausen also needs to learn how to move in the pocket. By how I'm referring to what to do when pressure comes. Right now he basically has a spin move and a rollout right. He must learn when to spin out, when to roll away, when to step into the pocket, when to step in and then out of the pocket, when to take the loss, and then when to step into the pocket and take off running through the huge lanes that are available.

That brings me to my final point with regards to Clausen's legs becoming a weapon. Brady Quinn proved during his time at Notre Dame you don't have to be Pat White to hurt teams with your legs. While Clausen isn't the same athlete that Quinn was he does have enough athletic ability to hurt teams the way they play the Irish. When teams decide to rush four or five and bail their coverage to take away the Irish deep game Clausen needs to learn to see the running lane and take off up the middle. After a number of 8-12 yard scrambles to move the chains teams will be less apt to bail so many players in coverage. This will make him a much more effective passer.

Decision making is obviously the biggest area in his game that needs improvement. Clausen not only needs to get much better at making the right decisions but also in making the right decisions sooner. He needs to be more consistent with his pre-snap reads which will tell him where to look first. As he matures, continues to master the offense, and grows in his understanding of defenses this should improve. Once he improves here the next area is his post-snap decisions. If the defense throws a different wrinkle at Clausen to rolls their post-snap coverage it often confuses Clausen. A better understanding of defenses and continued knowledge of his own offense will help, as will learning to work through progressions more quickly.

As he grows more confident in these areas we'll see a natural improvement in looking off defenders. He did this against the more basic coverages that we saw teams like Stanford employ, but more often than not he locked in on one or two guys and stared them down. The better he understands the offense the more confident he'll be on where his receivers are without having to actually look at them. The more confident he is in recognizing opposing defenses post-snap the easier it will be for him to work through his progressions. This will allow him to throw to spots more often and anticipate (correctly) where open receivers will be. This will improve his decision making and also improve the quickness with which he makes decisions and throws the football. That's what being a playmaking quarterback in the Charlie Weis offense is all about. It's not about always making the great throw, or the tough throw, or fitting a ball into tight windows. It's about making those throws when the opportunities present themselves, but the rest of the time being a playmaker in the Weis offense is simply about running the offense. It means taking what the defense gives you, it means recognizing and attacking (through film study and on the field awareness) the weaknesses of his opponents, and it means not being afraid to throw the check down 10+ times if need be. It simply means trusting the system, running the system, and getting the ball into the hands of the many playmakers he'll be surrounded by the next two seasons.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN THE SPRING

From Jimmy Clausen we need to see continued physical development. He looked much more like a college player this season but still could use another 5-10 pounds of good weight onto his frame. Footwork in the next area where I hope to see big improvements during the spring. I'd like to see Clausen moving quicker, moving better, and showing much better pocket presence. Finally look for continued growth within the system. As for Dayne Crist I will be looking at his mechanics during the spring. How he has learned and adapted to the offense will be important, but at this stage in his development I'm more concerned with whether or not he has shored up some of his mechanical issues. Dayne has immense physical ability. He's big, he's athletic, he has a cannon for an arm, and from the times I've been around him he seems like a tremendous leader. But he had mechanical issues coming out of high school. He needs to be a bit more compact with his throwing motion, although he'll never have a super quick release. If he gets a bit more compact his longer motion won't hurt him thanks to his superior arm strength. He also needs to show much improved footwork in the pocket. Dayne is an excellent athlete when he gets going but still needs work with the quickness of his drops. He also needs a lot of work with his footwork when he throws the football. I'll certainly be looking for that. He wasn't the most accurate passer in high school and it had a lot to do with inconsistent steps as he threw. Look for that in the spring.

SUMMARY

The future is very bright at the quarterback position for Notre Dame. Both Clausen and Crist are two of the most talented throwers you will find. If Clausen can continue to mature as a player and as a person I believe he'll have a super junior season. Doing so, and staying healthy, gives the ultra-talented Crist one more year to improve his one weakness…mechanics. The Hawaii game showed the kind of player Clausen can be. What he needs to do next season is be that guy on a much more consistent basis.


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