Monday, August 06, 2007

Practice? We Talkin' 'Bout Practice?!?

And so it begins for Charlie Weis and the Fighting Irish. Year 3 kicked off today with the start of fall camp, and with plenty of competition spread out over the field (including the all-important position of QB-1), Weis was in high spirits as he dished on the impending quarterback battle, better overall depth then he's seen in either of his previous two seasons, the neverending expectations game that a school like Notre Dame is subjected to, the NCAA ban on text messaging, and the usual assortment of "what's it going to take to win this year" inquiries that are the hallmark of every coaches' press conference.

For scores of college football pundits, to say nothing of every Notre Dame fan in the known universe, the answer to their most pressing question - who's running the huddle now that Brady Quinn has moved on to an illustrious career as a holdout from Cleveland Browns training camp? - probably won't be answered with any sort of finality until after Weis' offense trots onto the field for its first play against Georgia Tech on September 1st.
The candidates, in order of likelihood to start:

Evan Sharpley - Jr., Marshall, MI / 6-2, 212 lbs.

A year ago, Sharpley's status as Quinn's backup was perceived to mean very little; he was simply holding a clipboard and being run out for the occasional mop-up series at the end of a blowout while the highly-touted Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones learned the ropes as freshman. When the commitment of Jimmy Clausen was made official during the 2006 Blue-Gold Game, along with Clausen's intention to be an early-enrollee so he could compete in 2007's spring practices, Sharpley was easily the 4th-most talked about man on the QB depth chart.

And yet there is something about him that could make him a very appealing choice to start. First and foremost, he impressed enough to remain as one of the 3 competitors heading into this fall camp, which begat the chain reaction of events that ended with Frazer, the first man knocked out, transferring to UConn. Secondly, do not underestimate the value of him having two full seasons to digest and understand Weis' offense. And while he does not have the rocket arm of Clausen or the freakish atheltic skills of Jones, he's been described by many as a serviceable blend of the two. Above all, "Evan ran the operation the best", Weis concluded in his post-spring breakdown of the three candidates. If things unfold as planned and Weis sees a power running game that can take a lot of pressure off the quarterback, Sharpley (Michigan's Gatorade Player of the Year in 2004) just might be the heir apparent.

Jimmy Clausen - Fr., Westlake Village, CA / 6-3, 207 lbs.

It's tough to claim you follow college football, period, if you don't know everything there is to know about Jimmy Clausen. He was a Sports Illustrated profile piece by the time he was a junior in high school. His visits to campus throughout the 2005 season and off-season, culminating with his late-April commitment on the weekend of the intra-squad scrimmage, got the attention normally reserved for a head of state. (And, of course, there was the stretch Hummer.)

Then, after a solid spring in which he did nothing to stand out from the pack but certainly did enough to hold his own ("Jimmy threw the ball best" was Weis' conclusion), it was practically breaking news on ESPN when Clausen had a 'procedure' on his elbow over the summer. The exact cause for it as well as what it remedied remain shrouded in mystery, but Weis was adamant at today's press conference that, if the situation required it, Clausen would be available to "sling it 30 or 40 times" against Georgia Tech.

Clausen's drive is well-documented and so are his exploits in SoCal high school football, which include tossing a ridiculous 97 touchdowns (versus 14 interceptions) in his first 3 high school seasons before committing full-throttle to Notre Dame. He spent his senior season split between picking apart Oaks Christian HS opponents and breaking down Notre Dame film with older brothers Casey and Rick. He passed on a relaxing spring in L.A., enjoying his final months of high school, to move to South Bend in the dead of winter and work like crazy to become Charlie Weis' next prize pupil. Will the work result in a starting gig before the end of 2007? You might think you know all there is to know about Clausen, but that's one question Weis alone knows the answer to - and he's not telling.

Demetrius Jones - So., Chicago, IL / 6-4, 210 lbs.

The best athlete of the three, Jones turned heads in spring ball with an uncanny amount of playmaking ability, compensating for the fact that he isn't running the operation the best or throwing the ball best like his two fellow entrants. If he were to become a successful quarterback at Notre Dame, his standing as a product of the Chicago Public League would be a valuable chip for the Irish coaches and could produce a detectable windfall on the recruiting trail in that talent-rich area, much like the presence of new defensive coordinator Corwin Brown has on the other side of the ball. Of course, Jones needs to get on the field first.

There's no questioning Jones, nicknamed 'Double D' since childhood for his tendency as a double disaster, has the skills to be a top-flight quarterback. But will he have the ability to soak in and break down every last detail of Weis' offense? The answer to that will determine his fate in relation to the quarterback position. Ever since he committed to Notre Dame fans have theorized he could be moved to another position, the most popular choice being wide receiver - many fans with the positive memories of Arnaz Battle's recent position switch still lingering on, no doubt. Others speculate his speed could prove valuable on defense at either corner or safety. But Notre Dame's depth is solid at those positions, even if they lack a proven threat for the moment at wide receiver. If Jones doesn't succeed in winning the starting job, he might soon follow Frazer out the door. But if Weis elects to put the best athlete at the most important position, then 'Double D' could be wreakin' havoc on ND opponents for quite awhile.

Ultimately, the QB battle is going to be won by somebody before September 1st rolls around - possibly well before that, as Weis hinted today, though he has no intention of letting Georiga Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta in on his secret any sooner than he has to. What remains to be seen is what Weis wants from the position - a caretaker or a playmaker? If the running game clicks as hoped for, thanks to the return of fifth-year slasher Travis Thomas and a stable of youngsters such as James Aldridge & Robert Hughes (the bruisers) next to lighting-quick freshman Armando Allen, then Weis may want a QB who'll make just enough smart decisions to let others win the game - Sharpley. But what if Weis wants the quickest athlete or the strongest arm in the game to compensate for a young o-line and a defense with plenty to prove? That could leave it as a coin flip between Jones and Clausen for all we fans know. My advice? Tune in four Saturdays from now and watch what happens.

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