April 21, 2008

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Some 30,000 sets of expectant eyes at Notre Dame Stadium probably didn't grasp what they saw last Saturday, the precise meaning of the football cutting its parabolic, ground-to-air-to-ground path over more than 60 yards of turf.

They likely didn't comprehend the context immediately, because few were there two weeks earlier for Notre Dame's other open practice of the spring. Maybe halfway through drills that began at 7:30 a.m. that day, the offense faced the defense, full-tilt, in the red zone. And Jimmy Clausen threw three touchdown passes on the first four snaps.

The sequence was as eye-opening as the free coffee in the lobby of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex and arguably more necessary. It suggested the presence of an anchor, a calm where matters had been, to use Irish coach Charlie Weis' own word, "chaotic" a year earlier.

So two Saturdays later, in that cauldron of overcaffeinated hope known as a spring game, a pass uncorked by Clausen landed in a receiver's hands 57 yards from the line of scrimmage. Counting the drop-back, it traveled even farther. It was a crowd-rouser. But beyond that it was, in terms those at Notre Dame might appreciate, a confirmation.

The Irish have one quarterback, and he is more worthy of optimism than skepticism. Now about everything else ...

"I think you guys can see it out there for yourselves," said Clausen, who completed 10-of-27 passes for 183 yards in the spring game. "Last year I wasn't real healthy coming off elbow surgery and being hurt throughout the season. I feel great right now. I feel 100 percent back to where I'm supposed to be."

The same cannot be said yet about Notre Dame after its 3-9 campaign in 2007, unless you are one of the overeager believers or are easily swayed by rhetoric accompanying 15 practices in April. Even Clausen's solid spring is no guarantee that those echoes won't hit the snooze button come September.

While the nation's No. 1 recruit of two years ago may look like the answer at quarterback, questions still linger about playmakers at receiver, about competency along the offensive line and about depth on the defensive line. Not to mention the effect of Weis handing play-calling duties to offensive coordinator Mike Haywood and sliding into a broader coaching role.

Basically, any confidence Notre Dame had by simply "Being Notre Dame" got pulverized into sawdust last fall. Thus Weis established regaining "swagger," as he put it, as a primary goal for the spring. Even he remains guardedly optimistic about the progress heading into the summer months.

"Right now, I would say the arrow is pointing up, but you have to see, when Aug. 7 and Aug. 8 roll around, how much carryover there is," Weis said. "If it stays level and continues to grow from there, then you have something special. If you start to see a leveling-out or a drop-off, then you wasted a lot of time and you're starting over again."

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.

You May Like