Saturday, August 30, 2008

Unlearning

Luke: Master, moving stones around is one thing, this is totally different.

Yoda: No - no different! Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.

As best I can tell, Jimmy Clausen is still very much a work-in-progress, but one week from today we get our first genuine look at what's been happening behind the curtain since November of 2007. Like former "Chosen Ones" Luke Skywalker, Neo, Aragorn son of Arathorn, and current Second Coming Barack Obama, he has arrived at that pivotal moment where he must set aside the slings and arrows in order to move to the next level. Checking in with #7 in our 12 Days of Irish Football is...

#7 - Ready, Aim, Fire

Now although I'm a firm believer in a strong ground attack, there can be no denying that many a college football game is won through the air, often with superior athleticism and clever scheming designed to get the fastest players the ball with maximum opportunities to create a chance for themselves. But the backs and receivers of this new wave of college football, no matter how talented, are still the hands of the operation. The most important player on the field, the only one who touches the ball on every snap, remains now and forever as the brains of the outfit - the quarterback.

By statistical measures, Jimmy Clausen had the kind of season one would expect from most players who went directly from small-school CIF football in the San Fernando Valley to starting in front of 100,000 hostile fans at Penn State. His line from 2007:
PASSING              GP-GS   Effic Cmp-Att-Int   Pct  Yds  TD Lng Avg/G
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
Clausen, Jimmy 10-9 103.85 138-245-6 56.3 1254 7 44 125.4
Most fans would've accepted this as the natural starting point for one player making the most difficult transition from one level to the next at the most scrutinized position. But coming from Clausen, the youngster to whom so much hype and praise had been given for so long, it was not nearly close to good enough.

For comparison's sake, here is Notre Dame's last two true freshman starting quarterbacks and their rookie numbers:
PASSING              GP-GS   Effic Cmp-Att-Int  Pct   Yds  TD Lng Avg/G
-----------------------------------------------------------------------
Quinn, Brady (2003) 12-9 93.53 332-157-15 47.3 1831 9 85 152.6
LoVecchio, Matt (2000)8-7   151.70  125-73-1    58.4  980  11  68 122.5
Clausen's opening act certainly wasn't aided by a non-existent running attack nor an offensive line that usually couldn't keep him or Evan Sharpley vertical long enough to finish the snap count. LoVecchio was the definition of a game-management quarterback, relied on only insofar as he would do nothing to cost his team the game. In his one performance that required a real step-up and make things happen moment, he went 13-for-33 in a Fiesta Bowl blowout at the hands of Oregon State.

So back to Clausen. Is he further along than those two were at the same checkpoint? Impossible to make the claim based on the numbers alone, because all three of their situations had significant (and unique) variables. But JC showed signs of handling the transition from prep ball to big-time college ball as well as anybody could have under the circumstances of having little to no help and playing without being fully healthy. More importantly, after stepping aside for two and a half games (BC, USC, and...gulp...Navy) he completed 55% of his throws with 6 TDs and 1 INT over the final three games. A key phase in his development was being able to finally breathe and watch from the sidelines, according to Coach Weis:
I explained to him how much easier it is to sit there and see how much the game slows down when you're not in the center, and he said that he couldn't believe the difference because he's been playing every snap his whole life...There's a lot of things when you're standing on the sideline and you're not in the center the game slows down tremendously. And what I said to him is if you ever want to be a good quarterback, how much it slows down when you're on the sideline, that's how slow it's got to be when you're playing because that's what the great quarterbacks do. They see everything happening before it happens, and the game plays for them it's a nice slow pace.
In his first year Clausen took some of the rudimentary steps forward, like Luke learning to levitate stones and R2-D2. Now comes the next challenge, one which having a true offseason conditioning program should make him more prepared for. Clausen and his bulked-up frame at some point will be asked to hoist the Irish on his shoulders and carry them across the finish line, to bail them out of an impossible situation that seems so unlike racking up meaningless stats against Duke and Stanford. But the great quarterbacks can handle the game whether it's fourth-and-goal against USC or first-and-ten against San Diego State. They digest everything thrown at them and then have the entire offensive attack learned and "unlearned" - a high degree of being able to see the entire play before it's ever been run is what takes the QB to that next level. If Clausen crosses that threshold this season, all those promises of being the "LeBron" of high school football may not seem so empty.



Note: as an important corollary to this 'stronger, faster, smarter' Jimmy, I imagine another sci-fi inspired conversation between Weis and his pupil:

Charlie: I've seen USC linebackers, Michigan defensive ends, punch through a concrete wall. We have emptied entire two-deeps at them and hit nothing but air. Yet as powerful as they are, their speed and strength are but tethers to the rules of an unreal world. Because of this, they will never be as strong or as fast as you can be.

Jimmy: What are you trying to tell me...that I can dodge blitzes?

Charlie looks across the practice field. to see five 300-pound members of his offensive line conduct the Irish Eyes drill. He watches for a moment, thinking.

Charlie: No Jimmy. I'm telling you that, when you're ready, you won't have to.

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