Casey Clausen: An Unsolved Mystery

After starting the better part of four seasons and compiling a 35-10 record while completing over 60 percent of his passes, quarterback Casey Clausen still confounds football experts.

Is he a big-time talent with exceptional poise capable of diagnosing and dissecting defenses? Or is he a marginal prospect who lacks the quickness and arm strength to make an NFL roster?

Many of the questions and contradictions that seemed to underscore Clausen's college career are following him to the NFL Draft. He supposedly hurt himself at the combine by failing to make the throws others in his group were completing, but at UT's recent pro day he showed well, displaying good touch on his deep throws.

Sporting News NFL Draft Report offered the following assessment of Clausen in which he was rated the No. 15 quarterback available in the 2004 draft, just behind No. 14 Luke McCown of Louisiana Tech and just ahead of No. 16 Rod Rutherford of Pittsburgh.

Casey Clausen, 6-31/2, 224, 4.95, Tennessee, 6th round

NFL COMPARISON: Jon Kitna, Bengals

STRENGTHS: Shows consistent ability to beat the blitz by finding his hot read. Has a high, quick release. Shows touch as an underneath passer and will do a good job of leading his receivers on quick slants, skinny posts and crossing routes.

WEAKNESSES: Doesn't have outstanding arm strength for a pocket passer. Tends to float a lot of passes and loses some accuracy when he throws downfield. Will go into a funk if he gets hit too often. Will start throwing off his back foot and put passes up for grabs.

BOTTOM LINE: Just when we started to write Clausen off as a prospect, he turned things around as a senior. Because he continues to improve and showed a lot of character, he's worth taking a chance on. Final Grade 3.4.

The scouting report ledger explains a grade of 3.4 puts Clausen squarely in the category of prospects that have a "chance to make an NFL roster." That may well be a fair appraisal of Clausen's potential but it does leave out some essential elements that should boost his chances of developing into a "quality backup" if not a "an eventual starter."

First of all Clausen is the only QB to start four years at UT other than Peyton Manning and his numbers compare favorably to Manning's, especially in light of the talent by which each was surrounded.

His first two seasons Clausen led Tennessee to a 17-3 record as the starter with feature backs Travis Henry and Travis Stephens and receivers Cedric Wilson, Donte Stallworth and Kelley Washington. Even at that he didn't have the depth of skill players that Manning, Andy Kelly, Heath Shuler and Tee Martin enjoyed. Henry didn't have a high profile backup as a senior and neither did Stephens. Clausen only had Wilson as a target his freshman year and both Stallworth and Washington were more raw than refined talents during his sophomore campaign.

The last two seasons Clausen had neither a feature receiver or back. Washington didn't play a third of the schedule Clausen's junior year and while the receiving talent was better last year it was still developmental. Furthermore, Tennessee has problems in the offensive line each of the last two seasons in addition to not having a strong lead blocker at fullback. Clausen had Jason Witten at tight end his first three years but only had a wide receiver catch one pass his senior season.

What seems more significant from the last two seasons is the physical toughness Clausen exhibited leading Tennessee to a five-overtime victory over Arkansas despite playing with a fractured collarbone. There was the poise he displayed in come-from-behind victories at Alabama as a sophomore and senior. The field general ship he showed in consecutive road victories over Florida and this year's upset of the Canes in Miami. He also has outstanding touch on the fade, a talent that has wide application inside the red zone.

Admittedly Clausen didn't show well in home losses to Alabama in 2002 or to Georgia in 2003, but he brought UT from behind in the final minute to overtake the Bulldogs in 2001 before the defense surrendered the advantage.

Interestingly enough, Clausen had a perhaps his best and worst games on consecutive years in the postseason, scoring an impressive victory over Michigan in the Citrus Bowl followed by UT's worst bowl loss ever to Maryland in the Peach Bowl.

The ultimate test of a quarterback is whether he makes the talent around him better. For the most part Clausen did that against the best competition in college football over the course of four seasons.

Surround him with NFL talent and Clausen might be the next Tom Brady. Then again, he could follow Andy Kelly to the AFL. Those are the type of contradictions that characterize people's perceptions of Casey Clausen.

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