Click below for the top three ranked units heading into fall camp:
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 4.
Pre-season National Acclaim: Jimmy Clausen ranks as Phil Steele's No. 10 draft eligible quarterback and the Irish QBs as a group finished at No. 12 in his ranking system (prior to the re-arrival of 5th year senior Evan Sharpley). Additionally, Lindy's rates Clausen as its 23rd best quarterback entering 2009.
Starter: Junior Jimmy Clausen
Backup: Sophomore/redshirt freshman Dayne Crist
Proven Depth: 5th-year senior Evan Sharpley
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 1.
Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the QB Unit at Season's End: No. 7 (of 11 units). And that accounts for complete disaster. A more likely low-end finish would be No. 5 behind our next featured position group.
Strengths: As a unit: Depth. Not many programs boast a 3rd string QB (Sharpley) who's a 5th year senior with two starts and 140 meaningful pass attempts. If Clausen is injured, backup Dayne Crist has all the tools to succeed in his second year in the program (Crist did not take a snap as a freshman last year). Unlike Clausen in his first season (2007), Crist would enter a situation that includes one of the best receiver tandems in the nation; a trio of ‘backs behind him with more than five years of total game experience, and an offensive line with 100 starts under its belt. Crist also boasts a legitimate BCS-level frame and healthy elbow: two elements missing from Clausen's game in 2007.
Clausen enters his junior season after an up-and-down (and back up) 2008. He has the arm strength to make any throw asked of a quarterback, and has shown tremendous touch on the deep ball. He's seen success, bounced back from failure, and after 22 starts, should be ready to assume an unquestioned leadership role for the offense. A breakout season from Clausen is essential and expected.
Weaknesses: Crist is talented but unproven as a No. 2 while Clausen, to date, has been inconsistent. He threw 132 consecutive passes without an interception at one point last season…then fired 9 picks over the ensuing 160 pass attempts.
Clausen has shown a lack of pocket presence in his 22 starts (including the maddening habit of turning his back to the defense to avoid an oncoming pass rusher). While Clausen will never be a running threat, he will nonetheless have to improve his toughness (physical – as in ball security and avoidance of arm-sacks) in the pocket and ability to deliver the ball when his protection breaks down.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: If you've followed closely, you know I've forecasted an excellent season for Clausen.
But his overall development, of course, is contingent upon the continued improvement of the offensive line protecting him, and the addition of a consistent running game in 2009. Allowing for minimal improvement in both instances, I believe Clausen and his receiving corps have the ability to score on any defense they'll face this fall.
There is, of course, a huge difference between a quarterback's potential, expected improvement and the true evolution of a third-year signal-caller. Clausen survived 2007 and saved his best for last in 2008. He and the team's skill position players have grown together over two seasons and the pieces are in place for the Irish QB unit to rank among the team's best - I wouldn't be mildly surprised if Clausen is named ND's most valuable player at the Team Banquet in December.
The Irish offense cannot reach its potential if Clausen doesn't perform at a level befitting this Pre-Camp ranking (No. 4) when we revisit the season in January.
These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.