Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2008 Notre Dame Football Preview: Quarterback

It's that time of year - my birthday is rapidly approaching, fall practice is in full swing, schools are starting up, and it's time to start the annual season preview posts.

This year, I'll do a position-by-position breakdown of the Irish, hopefully with a new post each day. I'm waiting to hear back on a new job I applied for, so that may briefly interrupt posting - I'll let you all know.


This year, the quarterback situation is stable, and has been all offseason, unlike last year. Last year, there was a full QB derby between Demetrius Jones, Zach Frazer, Evan Sharpley, and Jimmy Clausen as someone had the unenviable task of attempting to fill Brady Quinn's shoes. With Clausen's elbow surgery, Jones came in to opening day as the starter, which did not go well, to say the least.

This year, with DJ and Frazer transferred to other universities and Sharpley focusing on baseball, the quarterback job is Jimmy Clausen's to lose.

Jimmy Clausen Sophomore, 6'3" 217 lbs. Returning Starter
2007 Stats (9 games started):
Passing: 138/245 1254 yds. 7 TD 6 INT 103.85 Effic. 125.4 yds/gm
Rushing: 62 rushes 97 yards gained, 284 yards lost -187 net -3.0 avg 2 TD 34 sacks

Last season was a long one for the young Clausen, who had been used to winning all of his athletic career, winning 4 state championships in high school. In his frosh campaign, Jimmy was sacked a whopping 27 times, more than twice as much as Brady Quinn was sacked in his freshman year.

Many people were quick to label the young signal caller a bust, but when you dig deeper into the numbers, there is much to get excited about. If you take Brady Quinn as the gold standard by which to measure Jimmy Clausen, it's no wonder that Coach Weis is still so high on this kid. (For the record, had a couple of posts similar to this a while back)

The first thing to look at would be production, and in that category, Brady has the edge, throwing for over 1800 yards compared to Clausen's 1254. However, this discrepancy is largely due to the number of attempts - Brady attempted 332 passes, compared to Clausen's 245.

A better measurement, then would be passer efficiency and TD/INT ratios. In efficiency, Jimmy has the clear edge, with a 103.85 passer efficiency rating, compared to Quinn's 93.53. Also, Quinn threw more INTs than TDs, with a 9/15 ratio. Clausen, on the other hand, threw 7 TDs against only 6 INTs.

And Clausen's better efficiency came in the face of worse protection, and with far less run support. Quinn's freshman year featured over 2200 yrads of rushing, compared to barely 1500 yards in Clausen's freshman year.

And with the confirmed reports that Clausen was never healthy last year, there is much to get excited about.

Clausen has put on 20 pounds of muscle in the offseason, and everyone that has watched him throw can tell that his accuracy and arm strength are far superior to last year.

While every team this year is talking about how good offseason conditioning has been to their program, this is one situation where (assuming he stays healthy) it appears that Clausen could have a jump in production similar to the one Brady Quinn had between his sophomore and junior years.

Another big difference this offseason? No splitting reps. Last year's QB derby meant that Clausen got only a quarter of the reps in practice. This year, he has been the only guy, which means a lot more time developing chemistry with his receivers. It also means more coaching from the coaches, and more chances to absorb the playbook.

Weis has said in his press conferences that Clausen is ready to take on a lot more of the playbook than last year, but that he can only open up the playbook as far as his offensive line will allow.

There are still lots of questions on the O-line, but I predict a much stronger campaign from Clausen this year, barring injury.

Don't be surprised if, in fact, at the end of the year Clausen is being touted as a Heisman candidate entering his junior year. Lofty goals, I know, but (at least at this position), I'm drinking the Kool-Aid.

Evan Sharpley Senior, 6'2" 215 lbs. Returning Starter
2007 Stats (2 games started):
Passing: 77/140 736 yds. 5 TD 3 INT 106.66 Effic. 92.0 yds/gm
Rushing: 38 rushes 68 yards gained, 163 yards lost -95 net -2.5 avg

Sharpley was in the middle of the QB battle all last season, spending the majority of the season as the backup to either Clausen or Jones. He did get two starts, and almost pulled out a come from behind victory against Purdue last year. In fact, many people thought that Sharpley should have been the starter all season last year, and that view is supported by the fact that he had a better passer rating, and a better TD/INT ratio, than Clausen. However, I believe that Coach Weis' decision to start Clausen, despite not being healthy, was in the best long term interests of this football team. Starting Sharpley may have won us 1 or 2 more games last season, but it would have still been a losing season.

Also, that would have made Sharpley the returning starter. With Clausen 100%, there is little doubt in my mind that he is the better quarterback. However, then Weis would have been faced with another offseason of QB controversy, as he would be forced to choose between the more talented yet inexperienced QB, or the returning starter who is splitting time with baseball during the spring.

I know that Sharpley can't be happy with the way things worked out on the football field, and I'm still not sure that Coach Weis didn't handle the situation badly. However, I think that the team is better off having an unquestioned starter in Jimmy Clausen.

Sharpley is back this year, and will be a reliable backup with starting experience should Clausen go down with injury. This is a huge plus for the Irish, considering Frazer and Jones' transfers. If not for the dependable Sharpley, the Irish would look to true freshman Dayne Crist for leadership - and unlike Clausen last year, Crist did not enroll early and have the benefit of spring practice to get him ready to play.

Dayne Crist Freshman, 6'4" 233 lbs.
2007 Stats (Sherman Oaks High School):
Passing: 134/232 2178 yds. 16 TD 1 INT
Rushing: 81 rushes 454 yards 4 TD

Crist comes in with Brady Quinn-like size and strength. He looks as much like a linebacker as a quarterback, and seems ready to play right out of the box.

That said, Crist is not going to see the field this year, unless catastrophe strikes the Irish offense.

Crist has an exciting future here at Notre Dame, and I have no doubt that he will be the heir apparent to Jimmy Clausen whenever JC leaves for the NFL. However, he is in no particular hurry, and will take his time learning the playbook and serving as an understudy until his time comes.

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