Clausen's Heisman hopes hinge on clash with Trojans

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As autumn takes hold and the football season enters its seventh week, the landscape unique to each college season slowly reveals itself.

For a Heisman race that was one of the most highly anticipated in memory, what has emerged was not necessarily expected, but still filled with intrigue. With last year’s Heisman finalists all returning for another season, many expected Colt McCoy to wage battle with previous winners Tim Tebow and Sam Bradford. Yet the season has not gone according to plan, and whether it be injury or play worthy of mere mortals, the Heisman race is far from finished as the ides of October approach.

Summing up where Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen fits in all of this is a complicated proposition. By the numbers, Clausen deserves to be at the forefront of the Heisman discussion. He’s competing 67 percent of his throws, averaging 308 yards passing per game (his only sub 300-yard game was Purdue, where he sat out a large chunk), and has 12 touchdown passes against only 2 interceptions. Yet Clausen also has failed to pass any major test. While Notre Dame fans offer a clutch 4th-quarter drive in the last-second loss to Michigan, and valiant comeback victories against Purdue and Washington, Clausen has yet to engineer a singular “Heisman moment” that could catapult his candidacy ahead of mainstays McCoy and Tebow.

But Clausen is in a position to take the leap.

HeismanPundit.com is a website dedicated to “breaking down the politics of the most prestigious awards in sports.” Managed and edited by former USC assistant sports information director Chris Huston, Huston worked first-hand directing successful Heisman campaigns for former Trojan quarterbacks Carson Palmer and Matt Leinart. Huston coordinates the Heismanpundit/Orlando Sentinel Heisman Poll, a weekly survey of actual Heisman voters that was the most accurate predictor of all polls last season, and even became a Heisman voter in August of 2009. (Basically, he knows his stuff.)

Catching up with Chris yesterday night, he had this to say about Clausen’s candidacy.

“If Clausen leads the Irish to a win over USC, he’ll finally have that signature victory over a quality opponent that has eluded him for so long.  Heisman voters know he’s good, they just don’t know if he’s good enough to get Notre Dame over that hump.  Beat the Trojans and they’ll finally believe.  Clausen would probably move into the Heisman lead with a good performance in a win over USC.”

A quick look at other the major media outlets reveals that the Notre Dame signal-caller has gotten people’s attention. Last Saturday during ESPN’s popular College GameDay, Clausen spoke live to Lee Corso and Kirk Herbstreit, who both sang Jimmy’s praises. ESPN’s Heisman Watch has Clausen running third behind Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy.

Gene Menez, who captains Sports Illustrated’s Heisman Watch put Clausen at his top spot, and said that “it’s safe to say that no other game on Clausen’s schedule will have a bigger impact on his chances to become Notre Dame’s eighth Heisman winner than Saturday’s.”

The Sporting News’ Matt Hayes has Jimmy Clausen sitting third in his Heisman race after six weeks, with Clausen behind Tebow and Nebraska defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh, who historically has little chance to actually win the award. Hayes also focuses in on this weekend’s matchup. “Beat USC next week and gain instant credibility.”

At CBS Sportsline, their five-man Heisman panel has Clausen sitting narrowly atop Tebow in first place, with — surprise — this week’s game against Southern Cal a huge spotlight for Jimmy and the Irish.

And finally, NBC Sports very own Race for the Heisman has Clausen in a four-man race with Tebow, McCoy, and Suh, who caught the eye of many football fans with his dominating defensive performance on a rainy Thursday night in Missouri last week.

You could say that the season starts here for Jimmy Clausen and the Fighting Irish. If Clausen and Notre Dame have any greater aspirations for this season, they’ll need to find a way to defeat their nemesis in Southern California, a team that has had their way with the Irish since Charlie Weis came to South Bend.

If Clausen can manage that feat, it’ll be a brave new world for the Irish quarterback. Expect a website that is already in its planning stages to be launched by the Irish’s Sports Information department. Expect a media frenzy that is already buzzing around Clausen to be a full-fledged circus. And expect Jimmy Clausen, a player who walked into Notre Dame with the self-imposed burden of great expectations, to emerge from this weekend’s storm the front-runner for college football’s most coveted award. 

Restocking the roster: Wide Receivers

Notre Dame v Florida State
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Some believe that the best way to look at recruiting is in two-year increments. As programs rebuild and rosters turn over, covering the needs of a football team over two recruiting cycles  allows a coaching staff to balance its roster.

That balance is critical to the health of a program. And it’s not just the work of a rebuilding coach. As we saw in Brian Kelly’s sixth season, injuries, attrition and scheme change impacted the defense, especially in the secondary.

Another position set to deal with major change is wide receiver. Gone is All-American Will Fuller, departing South Bend after three years, scoring 29 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’ll look to run his way into the first round of the NFL Draft. Also gone are veterans Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle, putting the Irish in an unenviable position, needing to replace the team’s three leading receivers.

Reinforcements aren’t just on the way, they’re already on campus. While there’s not a ton of production to see, the recruiting stockpile has created a chance to reload for Mike Denbrock’s troop. So let’s take a look at the additions and subtractions on the roster, analyzing the two-year recruiting run as we restock the receiving corps.

DEPARTURES
Will Fuller
, Jr. (62 catches, 1,258 yards, 14 TDs)
Chris Brown, Sr. (48 catches, 597 yards, 4 TDs)
Amir Carlisle, GS (32 catches, 355 yards, 1 TD)
Jalen Guyton, Fr. (transfer)

 

2015-16 ADDITIONS
Equanimeous St. Brown

Miles Boykin*
CJ Sanders
Jalen Guyton
Chase Claypool*
Javon McKinley*
Kevin Stepherson*

 

PRE-SPRING DEPTH CHART
Corey Robinson, Sr.
Torii Hunter, Sr.*
Justin Brent, Jr.*
Corey Holmes, Jr.*
CJ Sanders, Soph.
Miles Boykin, Soph.*
Equanimeous St. Brown, Soph.
Kevin Stepherson, Fr.*

 

ANALYSIS
Brian Kelly expects St. Brown to step into Will Fuller’s shoes. If the Irish are able to pluck another sophomore from obscurity to the national spotlight, it’ll say quite a bit about the depth and productivity the Irish staff has built at the position. At 6-foot-5, St. Brown has a more tantalizing skill-set than Fuller—and he was a national recruit out of a Southern California powerhouse. But until we see St. Brown burn past defenders and make big plays, assuming the Irish won’t miss Fuller is a big leap of faith.

The next objective of the spring is getting Corey Robinson back on track. The rising senior had a forgettable junior season, ruined by injuries and some bruised confidence. A player who has shown flashes of brilliance during his three seasons in South Bend, the time is now for Robinson, not just as a performer but as an on-field leader.

Torii Hunter Jr. is also poised for a big season. After finding reps at slot receiver and possessing the versatility to see the field from multiple spots, Hunter needs to prove in 2016 that he’s not just a utility man but an everyday starter. His hands, smooth athleticism and speed should have him primed for a breakout. But Hunter might not want to stay in the slot if CJ Sanders is ready to take over. After a big freshman season on special teams, Sanders looks ready to make his move into the lineup, perhaps the purest slot receiver Brian Kelly has had since he arrived in South Bend.

The rest of the spring depth chart should have modest goals, though all face rather critical offseasons. Justin Brent is three years into his college career and the biggest headlines he’s made have been off the field. Whether he sticks at receiver or continues to work as a reserve running back remains to be seen. Corey Holmes is another upperclassman who we still can’t figure out. Will he ascend into the rotation with the top three veterans gone, or will he give way to some talented youngsters?

Miles Boykin earned praise last August, but it didn’t get him time on the field. He’ll enter spring with four years of eligibility, same as early-enrollee Kevin Stepherson. The Irish staff thinks Stepherson has the type of deep speed that they covet, capable of running past cornerbacks and stretching a defense. Boykin has size and physicality that could present intriguing options for an offense that’ll be less reliant on one man now that Fuller is gone.

Live Video Mailbag: 40-year decision, more BVG, freshmen and more

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We’ve done plenty of mailbags, but this is our first shot at a Live Video Mailbag. This should be a better way to answer more questions and hopefully interact with a few of you as we try to work off some of yesterday’s Super Bowl snacks.

Topics on the list: The 40-year decision, more Brian VanGorder talk, the incoming (and redshirt) freshmen and a whole lot more.

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Kelly and Swarbrick turn attention to science of injury prevention

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Amidst the chaos of their live Signing Day show, UND.com ran had a far-reaching interview with head coach Brian Kelly. It was conducted by his boss, athletic director Jack Swarbrick, and his former team captain, Joe Schmidt.

So while there was a little bit of talk about the 23 recruits who signed their national letters-of-intent, there was also a very illuminating exchange on an issue that’s really plagued the Irish the past few seasons: Injuries.

Football is a dangerous game. And for as long as people play it, there’ll be impactful injuries that take players off the field. But as Notre Dame settles into what looks like their longest run of stability since the Holtz era, the focus of Kelly and Swarbrick has moved past modernizing the team’s medical services, strength program and nutrition and onto the science of injury prevention.

Here’s what Kelly said about the efforts currently taking shape:

“I think the science piece is very important, because no longer is it just about strength and conditioning,  it’s about durability. It’s the ability to continue to play at an optimal level but also with the rigors of a college schedule, and particularly here at Notre Dame, how do we maximize the time but maximizing getting the most out of our student-athletes and not lose them?

“As you know, we’ve had a couple years here in a rough stretch of injuries. And how do we have an injury prevention protocol that brings in the very best science? You’ve done a great job of reaching out in getting us those kind of resources. so I think tapping into that is probably the next piece. As well as providing the resources for our student-athletes. Continuing to look at facilities. Continuing to give our student-athletes maybe that little edge. Because everybody’s got 85 scholarships.”

It’s clear that the issue is one that’s on the radar for not just Kelly, but the athletic administration. So it’ll be interesting to see some of the steps taken as the program begins investing time and additional resources to an issue that’s really hit the Irish hard the past few seasons.

There’s plenty of other good stuff in the 13-minute interview, so give it a watch.