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The Kid with the Golden Arm

Jimmy Clausen, the third quarterbacking brother in his family, may be a once-in-a-generation talent as a passer. And he's only a junior in high school

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Jimmy Clausen
Clausen's preternatural gifts led his private coach to call him "the LeBron James of high school football."
Peter Read Miller/SI
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By Kelli Anderson

Walk into Jimmy Clausen's bedroom and you'll find a six-inch, imperfectly patched section of wall painted a not-quite-matching shade of creamy yellow. A few months back Clausen was throwing the football with a cousin, who failed to haul in one of Jimmy's bullets. The ball blasted a hole through the Sheetrock with the precision and force of a roto-hammer. "We tried to patch it before my parents got home, but we got the wrong color," says Clausen.

It's safe to say that none of the dozen or so recruiting letters the 6'3", 200-pound, junior quarterback at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif., receives every week are from trade schools. Then again, we can't be absolutely sure, since Clausen doesn't spend a lot of time poring over them. He is trying hard to ignore the Internet-fueled buzz he has created with his extraordinary right arm. "Right now all I care about is my team and winning a championship," he says.

The last name should be familiar to college football fans. Jimmy's oldest brother, Casey, was a four-year starter at Tennessee, and he ended his career in 2003 as the second most prolific passer in school history, behind Peyton Manning. His other brother, Rick, a quarterback who signed with LSU in 2001 and then transferred to Knoxville in June 2003, is the on-again, off-again starter for the Vols this season.

Jimmy, 18, is the best of the bunch -- at least that's what his brothers and the 46 schools that have already offered him scholarships seem to think. "I'm biased, but he is the best I've ever seen," says Rick. "He's head and shoulders above Casey and me in high school." Adds Steve Clarkson, a private quarterbacks coach who has instructed all three Clausens, "Jimmy has the leadership of Casey, the intangibles of Rick and the skills of Dan Marino."

Others see the arm of John Elway, the composure of Tom Brady and the quick release of Joe Namath. Clausen carries the ball high, by his ear, which gives him a short, accurate and ridiculously consistent motion. "I've never seen anyone with a quicker release than Jimmy has," says Brian Sipe, the former Cleveland Browns quarterback and NFL MVP who is now the coach at Santa Fe Christian in San Diego. "I didn't expect to see that at the high school level."

On the way to beating Sipe's team and 13 others for the Lions' second straight Division XI California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Southern Section championship last year, Clausen completed 69% of his passes for 3,665 yards, with 58 touchdowns and just six interceptions. And that was without playing in the second half of most games. His numbers thus far this year are less gaudy -- 2,026 yards, 27 touchdowns and four interceptions -- in part because he has been busy handing off to explosive junior tailback Marc Tyler. The son of former UCLA great Wendell Tyler, Marc has run for 1,800 yards and 31 touchdowns this season.

But Clausen throws enough to both impress and depress opposing coaches. "He is as technically perfect as anyone I've ever seen," says Carpinteria coach John Hazelton, whose team lost 48-10 against the Lions on Oct. 28. "He has every ball. He can throw a 50-yard ball on target to the corner of the end zone. He can throw a rocket up a seam between safeties. He has the deep ball over the top, with a perfect touch on it, very accurate. And he has great, great feet. He is beautifully coached. I'm sure he could play at some Division I colleges right now."

In fact, no one can think of many flaws Clausen needs to correct, but that doesn't mean he isn't continuing to work to improve. In addition to the time he spends with Clarkson -- at least 10 hours a week in the off-season, less during the season -- Clausen watches an hour of film every night, and he talks with his brothers almost daily. "What amazes me is his ability to keep things in perspective," says Clarkson. "He knows people are there to watch him, but he is able to shrug that off and play. People don't think he can live up to the hype, but in most cases he exceeds it."

Clarkson is responsible for much of that hype, having tagged Clausen "the LeBron James of high school football" before his freshman year. However apt the comparison may be in terms of, say, Clausen's ability to dominate the competition, the young quarterback has taken on none of the trappings of celebrity. The much-adored baby of the family who earned the nickname Smiley as a child, he is an unassuming, friendly sort who likes to hang out and eat pizza with his friends. Teammates tease him about how old he is -- like each of his siblings, Clausen started kindergarten at six and repeated sixth grade, "to gain maturity," says his mom, Cathy -- but he remains pleasantly kidlike. "You never see Jimmy strutting or pounding his chest or doing any of that macho 'me' stuff," says Hazelton. "He is playing football at its highest level and is still just a happy guy. That's what makes me like him."

In addition to Clausen and Tyler, Oaks Christian, a coed private school with fewer than 600 students, boasts nine other Division I prospects, including junior linebacker Casey Matthews, whose father, Clay, is a former Pro Bowl linebacker and Oaks's defensive coordinator. Needless to say, the team doesn't get tested much in its small-school division. Clausen knows he may only get 10 throws a game, so he tries to make each a masterpiece. "I want to be as close to perfect as I can be," he says. "The other day I had two passes out of 10 that were incomplete. I want to complete 10 out of 10. That's what I strive for."

Clausen mentions this while dining at an Italian deli near the Oaks campus. He lays out his goals between bites. "I want to go to college, win a national championship, then go to the NFL and have a good career," he says. "But I'm really not focused on any of that stuff, especially the college stuff. I'm just trying to enjoy high school."

In other words, he'd rather not talk about the three-foot-high stacks of recruiting letters on the kitchen counter at home, or the rumors flying around the Internet about which school he favors. He loves USC! He's thinking Notre Dame! Clausen and his family know a lot can change between now and signing day in February 2007. "We're trying to keep it simple," says Cathy. "We've been through this before."

The periodic recruiting rush to the Clausen door had its roots in the 1980s and early '90s, when dad Jim Clausen, who now runs an insurance business, worked as an assistant coach for a handful of Southern California high school and college teams, including Cal State-Northridge. When the kids were little, Cathy would load them into the car and follow the team bus to away games. When Casey and Rick were old enough, they rode in the back of the bus with the quarterbacks. "I just liked hanging out with those guys," says Casey. "That's probably why I became a quarterback."

Rick, a year behind Casey, wanted to be one, too. He served as Casey's backup at Alemany High in Mission Hills for three years before transferring to Taft High in Woodland Hills for his senior season. In high school both boys got coaching from Clarkson, a former San Jose State quarterback who runs Air 7 Football Academy in Pasadena and whose students include Matt Leinart and Ben Roethlisberger. One day when Clarkson was sitting with Jim in the stands at an Alemany game, he watched a towheaded preteen on the sideline heave a ball from one side of the field to the other. "Who the hell is that?" asked Clarkson.

"That's my other son," said Jim. "He wants to be a linebacker."

"He's a better quarterback than both your other boys right now," said Clarkson.

Jimmy started working with Clarkson in the seventh grade, developing his footwork and his understanding of defenses, among other things. He never started as a freshman at Oaks, but he made a clutch play in the CIF Southern Section championship game against Oak Park -- a 36-yard pass on third-and-five from his own five -- that helped the Lions secure their first title. "We needed a big play, and he got it done," recalls Duke Lemmens, a junior offensive lineman. "I think that's when everyone realized he was legit."

Clausen credits Clarkson with "making me the quarterback I am today," though he adds that he still learns a lot from Casey and Rick, who let him tag along for everything they did when he was little, from snowboarding down black diamond runs on Mammoth Mountain to attending quarterbacks meetings at Tennessee. "He was there for everything, including the recruiting visits," says Rick. "He has seen it all."

Few high schoolers have been more thoroughly exposed to the highs and lows of college football. Though Casey was 34-10 as a starter at Tennessee, fans there still criticized him, and no NFL team drafted him. After getting cut by the Kansas City Chiefs as a free agent, he made a brief tour of NFL Europe and is now a graduate assistant at Mississippi State. "The thing I always tell Jimmy is never be satisfied, always keep working to get better," says Casey. "I don't want him to go through what I went through."

He probably wouldn't wish Rick's career, either, on his little brother. A 6'3", 210-pound lefty who has made up for a lack of size and arm strength with smarts and leadership, Rick threw for 3,361 yards and 38 TDs during his senior year at Taft, good enough to earn a scholarship to LSU. He redshirted his first year and had one disastrous start in his next, after which he was promptly buried on the depth chart. With more top-flight quarterback prospects about to flood the system, he transferred to Tennessee and sat out Casey's senior year. In 2004, as a junior, Rick got buried again, until the two freshmen in front of him got hurt. He won three of his four starts that season, including the 2005 Cotton Bowl, in which he was named the MVP.

Rick was consigned to backup again this fall until sophomore Erik Ainge was yanked with the Vols trailing 21-0 at LSU on Sept. 26. In storybook fashion Rick engineered a 30-27 overtime victory over his former team. Those heroics, however, have been largely forgotten as Tennessee struggles through a disappointing season and fans point fingers at an ineffective offense. Still, Jimmy admires what Rick has accomplished. "Growing up, he was always 'Casey's younger brother,' and everyone told him he couldn't do things," says Jimmy. "He said, 'O.K., just watch me.'"

No one has expressed such doubts about the youngest Clausen, but he still feels driven to succeed. "I want to prove to everyone that I am the best quarterback in the country," Jimmy says.

Just watch him.

Issue date: November 28, 2005

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