As Clausen grows, the hope of Notre Dame blooms in spring (cont.)
Weis took the lead by making large-scale changes in his own approach. He relinquished the play-calling duties, which is sort of like a marathoner relinquishing his lungs. He also aimed to become more accessible to his team, appearing at 6 a.m. workouts, inviting the team to dinner and planning to meet with every player before the semester ends.
The media pounced on this Weis 2.0 storyline like vultures in a butcher store, but the reality of the situation is less dramatic. Fifth-year cornerback Terrail Lambert called it a "subtle change," and he would know. During one practice, Weis prodded Lambert, a three-year starter, by saying improved physicality would make the cornerback "halfway decent."
Still, players contend the mood is different. "When you're playing on the field, you can tell the family-atmosphere cohesiveness a group has," fifth-year defensive end Justin Brown said. "Last year, we didn't really have that. It kind of showed in how we were playing. As we gel together as a group and create that cohesiveness that coach Weis has started from himself, we all see each other as family members and depend on each other and are there for each other. That transfers to the field."
At the epicenter, for better or for worse, is Clausen. He arrived in time for '07 spring practice and Notre Dame immediately became the national leader in quarterback melodrama. Four contenders battled last spring. Two, Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones, eventually transferred (Jones started the '07 opener but was yanked by halftime).
Initially, Clausen battled bone spur problems in his throwing elbow, issues that Notre Dame evaded or denied -- until Clausen confirmed he had undergone a surgical procedure. "That whole quarterback situation was a bit chaotic at the time," Weis said in something of a stunning concession. "Nothing was really going as I scripted it. Whether it was Jimmy or any of the rest of the guys."
The plot line is mercifully bare-bones at this point. Clausen is healthy and entrenched as the starter after getting battered and bruised in a freshman season in which he threw for 1,254 yards and seven touchdowns against six interceptions. He has added bulk both to his frame -- Clausen now weighs 212 pounds, up 18 pounds from the end of '07 -- and his repertoire.
With backup Evan Sharpley concentrating on baseball this spring, Clausen was the lone scholarship quarterback in practice at times, accelerating his growth almost by default. Weis said Clausen has made a "quantum leap" mentally, saying he went "from 100-level classes to 300-level classes."
"I'm starting to get the little pieces of the playbook," Clausen said. "Last year I was just trying to get the big picture, trying to remember what the routes were that the receivers were running. Now I'm trying to remember what the lineman are doing, the blocking schemes, stuff like that. I've become, I think, more detailed."
Even after showing obvious zip during the spring game last Saturday, Clausen remains a virtual microcosm of the entire program under Weis. Like Notre Dame itself, just how much of his promise will Clausen meet?
He will only be a sophomore ... but he turns 21 this September. He is experiencing his first full offseason in the system ... but perhaps no young quarterback in history received as much tutoring and preparation at the position before he even stepped on campus. As with the Irish, the exact height of the ceiling remains obscured from view.
That lack of clarity, of course, leaves ample space for doubt and hope to coexist. It was clear last Saturday which side the faithful are taking. As Clausen walked up the tunnel toward the locker room, moments removed from throwing a game-winning touchdown pass, fans on the other side of a stadium gate clamored and called his name.
Tight end Mike Ragone teased Clausen by echoing their shrill entreaties. "Jimmaaayyyy!!" Ragone bleated with a smile. Clausen barely registered a grin as he turned the corner toward the locker room door. He gave Ragone a fist-bump and then continued to peel his wristbands off as he disappeared inside, leaving those on the outside to wonder, nervous and tantalized all at once.
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