It took two years, but Jimmy Clausen is comfortable as Notre Dame's quarterback
Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen needed to visit them a lot. It was the second career start for the then-freshman, the kid with all the hype and none of the offensive line. So Michigan’s defense beat up on the kid from Westlake Village, Calif., tossing him to the turf and crushing him between players.
“That might have been, physically, the toughest game I’ve ever played,” Clausen said, adding he was sore for five days, part of an injury-plagued 2007.
He was long on potential but short on charisma, the kid with all the tools except the ability to lead and perpetually recovering from injury after injury.
Now, he returns to Michigan Stadium two years later, captaining the No. 18 team in the country on Saturday in the same structure that sent his rookie season into a complete tailspin.
And he’s bigger, a better decision-maker and also transformed into a leader.
“It’s great improvement,” junior wide receiver Golden Tate said. “I was looking at someone’s Facebook status and it’s something like in the last two games 700 passing yards or something like that and nine touchdowns or something like that and zero interceptions.
“He’s grown so much. It’s really hard to believe how fast he’s done it. I remember coming in my freshman year and just watching the games and some of the decisions and I was like ‘it’s going to be tough on this kid to be really good.’”
Back then, it’d be understandable. Clausen sulked after bad plays. He made questionable decisions. He stared down receivers, letting everyone in Notre Dame Stadium know where he was throwing the ball. After playing hurt his freshman year, he collapsed the second half of his sophomore year, often going off by himself on the sidelines and caring more about trying to fix himself than leading everyone else.
So, for the sake of Notre Dame, he had to mature. He had to embrace the role of being the Notre Dame quarterback instead of seeing it as a necessary evil. He had to grow confidence.
He had to learn how to lead.
“I’m comfortable being the quarterback at Notre Dame,” Clausen said. “You know, early in my career, I didn’t know what to expect being the quarterback at Notre Dame. But now I do know the ins and outs of different things, you know whether it’s on the field or off the field.”
And if you’re looking for a reason the Notre Dame offense is better, look no further. A comfortable Clausen leads to a commanding presence and an offense that can cause other teams fits.
Notre Dame needed Clausen to relish the leadership role. They needed him to be the guy to corral guys like Tate and receiver Michael Floyd into taking a training trip out to California.
They needed him to be the guy to text running back Jonas Gray each week over the summer about learning the playbook. And to give Gray his own protection assignment sheets when he wanted to learn them.
It was in this summer, between the trips and the texts and the running of voluntary practices, where Clausen became more than just a guy who happened to be the quarterback at Notre Dame.
He became the guy who led them.
“He’s become a phenomenal leader,” Gray said. “I knew he had the skills. A lot of him was just voicing it. I remember sitting down with James (Aldridge) and he was telling me how 7-on-7 was when Brady Quinn was there, that it was fast and on target.
“And he says he sees the same thing starting to happen with Jimmy. That’s when I knew he’d become a leader. So I voted him as a captain.”
It’s even evident when he talks with the media now. Before, it’d be a spin of the “pick-a-clichÃ©” wheel, or a short, uninsightful answer. Now, Clausen seems to at least not be visually agitated at the prospect of speaking in public.
He’s the face of Notre Dame football, for better and worse. He just had to get used to it.