Thursday, December 6, 2007

2007 Review: Quarterback

No one would deny that 2007 has been a year of tumult at the QB position for the Irish. It has been a year of experimentation and draa for certain, but also a year of discovery. The Irish certainly saw their share of struggles from the QB position this year, but ultimately, I firmly believe that we have found our franchise QB in Jimmy Clausen.

The season began with the drama of a spring and fall QB battle without a named starter. As I have said before, I truly believe that this uncertainty hindered the development of the Irish offense in making the transition to the post Brady Quinn era. Anytime you have a guy who has dominated the position for years as Quinn did, there is a comfort level there, both for the coaching staff and the players. Coaches can be creative and diverse in their play calling and players can worry about their own performance and development without having doubts about whether the guy leading the huddle can make the right decisions and get them the ball. Whether coaches like to admit it or not, your QB HAS TO be the leader in the huddle, and must be a leader. It is just the nature of the position and the nature of the sport. If anyone ever wants to downplay the importance of the QB position in college football, this year provided some outstanding examples to counter that position:

Dennis Dixon starts, Oregon on the verge of playing for a National Championship.
Dennis Dixon out, Oregon can't gain a positive yard

Sam Bradford plays, they can beat anyone.
Sm Bradford out, they lose.

West Virginia:
Pat White plays, they win.
Pat White out, they lose to Pittsburgh and South Florida and score a combined 22 points.

I could go on, but you see my point. I firmly believe that had Jimmy Clausen been healthy and had he not undergone surgery to his throwing arm, Jimmy would have started from Day 1. That wasn't the case. Even if Jimmy had been healthy, this offense would have struggled this year. It is simply too much to expect a freshman QB to lead an offense against a schedule such as the Irish schedule, especially when he is surrounded by as much inexperience as the Irish had this year.

Before discussing Jimmy further, I want to publicly acknowledge Evan Sharpley in this article. Evan did everything you could ask him to do this season. Despite being the most experienced member of the QB corps, he accepted the decision to to start Demetrius with class. He prepared every single week like he was going to be the starter. When called upon to play, he provided a spark. Most importantly, he was a solid teammate and mentor to Jimmy, always in his ear after a series talking to him. Despite the common view that the most popular guy is the backup QB, this is not an easy job. As I have discussed throughout the season, Evan has some flaws in his game that I believe will prevent him from being a big-time starting QB. However, as a backup, he showed this year that he has all the tools you look for -- leadership, moxie, calm presence, and the motivation to prepare and study every single week as though he was the starter. The Irish would be in real tough shape if Evan had reacted as others did and transferred simply because he lost his starting spot.

I said at the beginning of the season that the most important thing that needed to happen this season for the Irish program was that they had to settle the QB question decisively by the end of the season. Whether it was Demetrius, Evan, or Jimmy, I felt that the Irish could not afford another offseason of uncertainty at such a critical position. While it seemed tenuous at times, I think Jimmy showed enough at the end of the season to at least provide concrete evidence that he is the guy now and for the future. Jimmy was not healthy for a single game this year. Whether it was his arm, hip, or something else, there was not a single game where Jimmy was close to 100%. That is not an excuse, it is just a fact.

I think it is useful to divide a review of Jimmy's performance into 2 parts, separated by the games Evan started. Pre-USC, Jimmy looked like a freshman QB. Mentally, he could figure out where to go with the ball, but he had a couple of problems:
1. He had no protection so he was drilled before he could complete the read and deliver the ball
2. It took him too long to make the read so held onto the ball too long. Just because you can read a defense, doesn't mean that you can read it fast enough. Jimmy was ahead of most freshmen QBs in that he could read a defense better than just about any freshman QB I have seen in a while. That doesn't mean he was able to read it fast enough to be successful at the level, especially when the time allotted for making a play was so reduced by poor protection.
3. Physically, he was unable to make all the throws. This was obvious to anyone watching our games, and if you watch the tape, other teams knew that as well and adjusted their defense accordingly.

Following his stint on the bench, Jimmy looked a lot different to me. Here is what I noticed:
1. He was much more confident on the field and in the huddle.
2. He still held onto the ball too long at times, but he looked more decisive and more willing to make the throw from the pocket.
3. Physically, he looked much stronger. Take a look at the TD to Grimes on the post pattern in the Duke game. That was an NFL throw right there.

Like everyone else though, Jimmy has plenty to work on in the offseason to prepare for 2008. Since I am trying to include discussion of moving forward to 2008 in these articles, I wanted to address what I think Jimmy needs to do to move forward:

1. Get stronger. This is a no-brainer. Jimmy needs to get bigger, needs to get stronger to compete for a full season at this level. This includes giving his arm the rest it needs so he is 100% in the spring.
2. Establish himself as a leader. This doesn't happen overnight and it can't happen simply by Jimmy jumping up and down in the weight room getting guys fired up. Guys see through things like that. Jimmy has to go about his business first, and allow his natural leadership qualities to emerge. Lat offseason, Evan and Demetrius organized all the 7 on 7 stuff in the offseason and Jimmy couldn't do much because he was recovering. This offseason, Jimmy has to be the guy doing that, with Ean working with him.
3. Spend as much time watching film and diving into the playbook as possible. This is imperative for any young QB. You don't get better just by being a year older, it takes work.

With talented, but raw, prospect Dayne Crist on the way, the Irish are well positioned at the QB spot. 2007 was a rough year for the QBs, but ultimately the Irish will be better for it. welcome your thoughts as always! Next Up: Running Back


Face Mask said...

IG,do you see Jimmy sharing playing time with anyone?

IrishGlory said...

Facemask - Barring injury, I do not see Jimmy sharing PT at the QB position at all. I think at this time next year, we will be thinking about Jimmy's hold on the position in much the same way we thought about Brady's hold on the position -- meaning there will be absolutely no question.

Irish Chris said...

I absolutely agree about Jimmy not being healthy all year, though he did show some speed in the last few games.
What I really mean was his arm strength early in the season.
Being in L.A., I was able to see the kid play a lot out here.
He threw lasers with accuracy, and I never saw this at the beginning of the season.
The last few games, and especially with that Grimes TD, we were able to see what a healthy JC can do.
I know we've found our QB too.