Thursday, August 23, 2007

2007 Position Preview: Quarterbacks

Of course, I'm going to ease back into this blogging thing with the easiest positional preview of the season, as well as the most enigmatic: the quarterbacks.

Brady Quinn has left some pretty big shoes to fill. Name a passing statistic, and in his four years at Notre Dame, he probably holds the top spot (or in season and single game categories, multiple top spots). He never got a shot at the Heisman due to his porous defense, but I think it is safe to say that he is one of the best college quarterbacks, and by far the best passer, in Notre Dame's history.

2007 players

Evan Sharpley, Senior
The only player with a snap in a college football game is Sharpley, a two-sport player who also started for the baseball team. He backed up Quinn last year.

Pros: He has the most experience and best understanding of the offense, as the only player battling who was here when Coach Weis started. He can make the throws, and has enough athleticism to avoid most sacks. He doesn't make a lot of mistakes.

Cons: He was SO far behind Brady last year, and there has been no indication that he has stepped up his game enough to be a legitimate starter this year. He appears to be a decent quarterback, stuck somewhere between Jones' athletic ability and Clausen's passing ability. But decent appears to be his ceiling.

Prediction: If Sharpley is the starter this year, it means that Clausen and Jones aren't picking up the playbook quickly enough. Coach Weis' system places a lot on the quarterback, and Sharpley appears, at this point, to be the best at reading defenses and checking into and out of plays. But he isn't a gamebreaker, and if he starts, it will be Coach Weis tipping his hand in favor of a Clausen/Jones/Crist battle next spring.

Demetrius Jones, Sophomore
A lot of Notre Dame fans gravitate towards Jones, a tough nosed Chicago kid that reminds you a little bit of past ND players like Rice, Battle and Holiday - a great runner and good passer. However, memories of Battle and Holiday are why the ND fans that aren't embracing him are projecting a position move to receiver if he doesn't start.

Pros: This kid can move. He's a natural born playmaker in the mold of a Michael Vick (hopefully without the moral ineptitude of Vick), with a strong arm to go with his quick legs. He brings a dimension to the quarterback position that is very intriguing in Weis' offense. Weis hasn't run an offense where the QB was a legitimate running threat before, and that element could open up the passing game. Jones' ability combined with Weis' offensive mind could be very scary indeed for opposing defenses.

Cons: Where do I start? Weis has never coached a quarterback like this in a meaningful way. Jones' skill set doesn't mesh with what Coach Weis is used to doing in his offense for the past decade. Heck, it doesn't really mesh with the whole NFL style of offense - Michael Vick is just the most notorious example of how athleticism doesn't translate into success in the NFL's pass happy offenses.

Prediction: If I had any stones, I'd be predicting Jones as the starter right now. His athleticism can make up for the youth on the offensive line, and can open up running lanes for what looks to be a more rush-happy offense this year, as opposing defenses will have to respect the bootleg. Weis spent some time with Coach Rodriguez in West Virginia this year, looking for ways to tweak his offensive system for a running quarterback.
But I won't.
Ultimately, (and I have no special knowledge on this subject) I think that Jones is a smokescreen - a way to keep Georgia Tech on their toes until the first offensive snap. I think that Jones would be an excellent starter under Weis, but ultimately I don't think he will start at quarterback, barring an injury.

Jimmy Clausen, Freshman
The "LeBron James" of football, Clausen is the most polished quarterback to come out of high school since at least Elway. If not ever. With all that polish comes a heaping helping of hype as well - Clausen hasn't even taken a snap as a college QB and is already overrated.

Pros: This kid is all about the upside. He is better right now, as a true freshman, than 90% of the starting college quarterbacks when it comes to mechanics and ability. This kid can make every throw in the book and do so with excellent timing and accuracy. A lot of Notre Dame haters play down Clausen as nothing but hype, but they are just plain wrong. This kid IS that good. Better even.

Cons: If he's so good, why is there even a quarterback controversy? Simple - the phone book. The phone book is what Brady Quinn nicknamed Coach Weis' playbook when Weis got here. It is massive, and it is complex. While some college systems are better for young quarterbacks to pick up (such as Coach Carr's conservative running based system), Coach Weis' may be the most difficult in the country.
Then there's the elbow. Clausen had surgery on his throwing elbow this summer to remove some bone spurs. He's supposedly 100% physically and is throwing again, but with all of the secrecy surrounding this race, it is just as likely that Clausen is already being shut down for the season to come in next year as the prohibitive favorite to win the starting job.

Prediction: I'm hesitant to do so - for so many reasons - but I ultimately think that the starting job this season is Clausen's. There is too much upside and value in getting Clausen experience this year on the field to not make him the starter. Eventually.

There are three likely scenarios I see this season, and two of them end with Clausen as our starting QB:

(1) Sharpley starts the season, Clausen takes over a couple of games in
This is the most conservative prediction on my part, as it sort of hedges my bets. Coach Weis wants someone ready to run the offense right now, and if he's not yet confident enough in Jimmy's brain and/or elbow, Sharpley would make the most sense as a placeholder.

(2) Clausen marches onto the field for the first snap, starting his legacy as Notre Dame's next great quarterback
This is what many of the outsiders to Notre Dame football are predicting, in some cases with a certain amount of pomposity and even as if it were a foregone conclusion (yes, I'm talking about that jackass Dodd over on CBS). Many internet rumor mongers have gone so far as to suggest that Coach Weis promised Clausen the job to close out his recruitment (a dirty lie). It's the easy choice - the golden haired California boy All-everything quarterback comes in to put that final coat of luster back onto the golden dome. It's the best story for the sportswriters and the best PR-move for the football program.
And that's why it just doesn't feel right to me. I'm not sure Clausen is ready. I'm not sure that he is healthy. I'm just not sure of anything right now.
But if I had to pick a scenario - this would be it, hands down.
'Cause if he walks onto the field for that first snap, that means that he is the anointed one - the next Brady Quinn. And not in my eyes, or the fans eyes. In Coach Weis' eyes. And there is nobody else on the planet whose opinion on quarterbacks I would trust more.

(3) Jones starts this season as quarterback.
There is a little part of me, deep down in the sub-cockles of my heart, that wants Jones to win this battle. His recruitment at QB was immediately followed by a slew of rumors that he'd be transferred to WR, as that some recruiting class had yielded the more traditional passing quarterback type in Zach Frazer. He stayed the course at QB, however. This kid stayed through the recruitment of the next big thing at QB(JC), and kept battling for the quarterback position, despite renewed rumors of a position switch. Through the spring, he continued to battle and beat out the more traditional Frazer, who has since transferred.
Seeing him beat out the golden boy would have a certain justice to it. Not that I dislike Jimmy Clausen. Just read the previous scenario, and you know I want Clausen to be everything he's cracked up to be.
But Jones is the epitome of a Notre Dame man, and the prototypical Notre Dame story. A good kid from inner-city Chicago gets off the streets and earns a scholarship to Notre Dame - where he wins the starting job, gets the girl, and solves world hunger. It's movie stuff here, the kind of stuff that is perfect fodder for those cheesy inspriational stories they have on ESPN Gameday on Saturday mornings. The stuff that movies and dreams are made of.

Ultimately, however, this is all pure speculation. This race is the best kept secret since who shot Kennedy, and we'll all find out on Sept. 1. Whoever starts, however, will be better than many people expect.
A lot has been made of the losses of Quinn, Samardzija, Walker, and McKnight. Many are predicting losses in most of our first 8 games. The ND haters are licking their lips at the prospect of us falling flat on our face.
However, our depth and athletic ability on this year's team is far better than the past 2 years on offense. We may lack experience, but we should make up for it in ability.

I haven't been this fired up about a season in a long, long time. Put me in, coach!