The thing about Jimmy…

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Over the next 50 days, both Jimmy Clausen and Sam Bradford will somehow see opinions on their quarterbacking play seesaw back and forth without ever taking a snap. That’s what happens in the days before the NFL Draft, a season in and of itself that’s powered by television viewers. The consensus top two quarterbacks in a draft that before the season started looked heavy on quarterbacks, will be flogged by pundits on television and radio on whether either truly deserves to be picked at the top of the first round.

This is a Notre Dame blog, so I’m going to skip the analysis of Sam Bradford. To be completely honest, I don’t think I’ve seen enough of him play to make a true judgment on his ability to lead an NFL football team. (Not that something like that should stop someone in the media from expressing an opinion…) That being said, Bradford’s sophomore season was one of the most impressive statistical seasons I can remember. If people simply compare apples to apples and look at Bradford’s body of work against the other top quarterbacks drafted in the past few years, I’ll take Bradford every time. The injury that derailed his final season in Norman is an understandable cause for concern. But the case against Jimmy Clausen is much more complex.

There is no easy narrative with Jimmy Clausen. Statistically, his junior numbers are far more impressive than Matthew Stafford or Mark Sanchez, two quarterbacks taken in the top five last year. His junior season was a triumphant finale to three seasons that followed an impressive career arc. His ability to play at a high level even after suffering a foot injury that robbed him of his mobility did plenty to show his toughness to teammates, opponents, coaches, and most importantly, NFL scouts. As a pure specimen, he’s adequate athletically, he’s got enough size to handle the physical nature of the NFL, and his arm strength and accuracy are already well above average.

Yet Clausen will forever be plagued by an image problem, and for plenty of good reasons. Our first impressions of Jimmy Clausen seemed to be managed by PR handlers, handlers that should’ve been fired for the job they did. Clausen was never just a blue-chip high school quarterback, he was the “LeBron James of high school football.” He wasn’t just adored by the recruiting websites, he was adoringly profiled by magazines like Sports Illustrated. Here’s a snippet from the nation’s introduction to Clausen by SI’s Kelli Anderson:

But Clausen throws enough to both impress and depress opposing coaches. “He is as technically perfect as anyone I’ve ever seen,” says Carpinteria coach John Hazelton, whose team lost 48–10 against the Lions on Oct.
28. “He has every ball. He can throw a 50-yard ball on target to the
corner of the end zone. He can throw a rocket up a seam between
safeties. He has the deep ball over the top, with a perfect touch on
it, very accurate. And he has great, great feet. He is beautifully
coached. I’m sure he could play at some Division I colleges right now.”

In fact, no one can think of many flaws Clausen needs to correct, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t continuing to work to improve. In addition to the time he spends with Clarkson –at least 10 hours a week in the off-season, less during the season– Clausen
watches an hour of film every night, and he talks with his brothers
almost daily. “What amazes me is his ability to keep things in
perspective,” says Clarkson.
“He knows people are there to watch him, but he is able to shrug that
off and play. People don’t think he can live up to the hype, but in
most cases he exceeds it.”

It was all too much even before his notorious press conference announcing his commitment to Notre Dame. The ridiculous pomp and circumstance, the infamous Hummer stretch limo and  College Football Hall of Fame announcement, still memorialized as the first image in a google search for the quarterback. Frozen in time, a high school junior smirks as he flashes his championship rings. From what, exactly?

In many ways, Clausen could never live down the horrible first impression he made. While his collegiate career could hardly be considered a failure, he’ll never go down in history as one of the greats at Notre Dame. He’ll never deliver on the stated goal of “four national championship rings,” that he mentioned during that introductory press conference. (He never even managed to lead the team to a .500 record, though hardly a fault of Jimmy’s.) Unlike many of the greats to play at Notre Dame, Jimmy Clausen will never be defined by his time in South Bend. He always felt like a hired gun, a quarterback merely working as an apprentice before moving on to the NFL. It never felt like Clausen bought into the Notre Dame experience, at the very best it was a short-term rental. (Or possibly just a quick real-estate flip, like the house purchased by his father for Jimmy’s South Bend years.)

Clausen hit the Combine unable to workout, yet intent on changing his public image. Still, he was predictably dogged with the familiar storylines. Lately, there has been surprisingly little written about Clausen’s actual play on the field. But were there questions about Jimmy Clausen’s leadership ability? The USA Today thought so. So did Sports Illustrated. And ESPN. And Sporting News.

I’ve never sat in a room with Clausen or interviewed him. For the most part, I’m guessing that the people questioning his leadership ability never did either. But I spent some time talking with people that did cover Clausen these past three years and there was surprisingly little fire behind all the smoke. If there was one universal complaint, it was that Clausen never truly opened up. Every answer sounded rehearsed, every statement, cliched. Too many times, Clausen opened with “to tell you the truth,” only to make it seem like he was doing anything but. Clausen’s familiar refrain this season of not considering his NFL future until after his junior season didn’t jive with the fact that he gathered his family on the field for a photo after the devastating UConn loss, the final home game of the season. Walking away with Jimmy’s helmet tucked under his brother’s arm after the Stanford loss certainly isn’t something a player considering another season does either.

There’s something almost refreshingly honest about the football player that uses college football as a vehicle to the NFL, but it’s just not something that happens regularly at Notre Dame. While Clausen may not have admitted it while playing under the Golden Dome, every step of his athletic career was done to put him in the position that he is today. While that may not make him the best dorm-mate or the guy that you sell jerseys of in the bookstore, it makes him an extremely attractive NFL prospect.

It took longer than expected, but Clausen’s teammates eventually grew to respect him as a leader. They wouldn’t have named him a junior captain if they didn’t. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to Clausen that NFL teams have the same preconceived notions that just about everyone else does. But once they see past the antics of a hot-shot high-schooler enabled by his family and handlers, they should look carefully at the quarterback that absolutely carved defenses apart, all while playing on one good foot.

Clausen may have blown his first chance at being the face of a franchise, but he was never intent on making his name in college. Whether it’s the Rams or another team at the top of the draft, somebody is going to get a quarterback that’s as close to NFL ready as any prospect in years. And if he learns from the mistakes he made his first time around, he’ll enjoy making teams pay for the mistake of not picking him for the next 10 to 15 years.

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

RELATED READING:
Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
2 Days Until Spring Practice: A look at the defensive backfield

Kraemer, Eichenberg compete for RT spot, moving Bars inside, and Bivin to…

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Forty percent of the offensive line is essentially set in stone: fifth-year senior Mike McGlinchey at left tackle and senior Quenton Nelson at right guard.

The center position seems to be senior Sam Mustipher’s to lose.

That leaves the two starting spots on the right side of the line for a number of players—both young and experienced—to fight over.

Sophomores Tommy Kraemer and Liam Eichenberg have emerged as the frontrunners for the right tackle spot, moving senior Alex Bars inside to right guard. Bars started all 12 games last season at right tackle.

“Those two [Kraemer and Eichenberg] are the guys we have mapped out at right tackle, and they’re going to battle,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “Today Kraemer was there. Last two practices Eichenberg got a lot of the work. Eichenberg will go back there on Friday. They’re going to keep battling and splitting the action out there.”

Part of the reasoning in giving the two sophomores extended looks this spring is Notre Dame knows what it has in Bars when at right tackle.

“We would prefer to get him in at the guard position, but we know he can play the [tackle] position,” Kelly said.

A starting five of McGlinchey, the three seniors and either sophomore may seem to leave fifth-year lineman Hunter Bivin out in the cold. Not often is a player asked to return for a fifth year only to spend it on the bench. That is even more rare when considering the current Irish scholarship crunch.

Kelly compared Bivin’s role to that of Mark Harrell’s last year. Harrell appeared in all 12 games, starting two, and provided much needed depth and flexibility along the offensive line. Rather than have five backup offensive linemen, position coach Harry Hiestand relied on Harrell to provide support at multiple spots.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Hunter Bivin’s going to be involved in this as well,” Kelly said. “We’ve just asked Hunter to take a seat right now. He’s done that for the team.

“We think Hunter is going to be a Mark Harrell for us. A guy that’s extremely valuable, can play a number of positions. We trust him, but we want to see these two young players [Kraemer and Eichenberg]. Hunter is a guy that can play right or left tackle for us. He’s going to be a valuable player for us as a swing guy.”

On that note, this space will refer to Bivin as a fifth-year lineman, as was done above, rather than as a guard or as a tackle, until further notice. In his case, the broader description may be the most accurate.

Spring break out west is fine, but Wimbush better be ready to run

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It will undoubtedly become a habit, at least for the next five-plus months. If Notre Dame junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush sneezes in front of a camera, it just might lead to an uptick in webmd.com traffic. His every football move will certainly be analyzed, nitpicked and discussed at length. Thus, Irish coach Brian Kelly being asked about Wimbush’s spring break should surprise no one.

Rather than find a Florida beach, Wimbush spent his spring break working with private quarterbacks coach George Whitfield in San Diego alongside a handful of other college passers. Kelly said there is value to such a spring break but stopped short of setting any lofty expectations of the effects.

“I have no problem with [Wimbush] working out with George Whitfield,” Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice, the first following spring break and the third of 14 leading into the Blue-Gold Game on April 22. “George doesn’t work on the specifics to the offense. George is really working on the quarterback and throwing the football, moving in the pocket. George is really good at keeping those quarterbacks active and moving.”

Whitfield is best-known around Notre Dame and among Irish fans for working with former Notre Dame quarterback Everett Golson during Golson’s academic suspension in 2013. Whitfield and Golson spent 10 weeks together, thus granting time for extensive off-field activities such as film study. Far shorter, Wimbush’s time out west appears to have been spent primarily doing drills.

“In those situations, it’s a bullpen session,” Kelly said. “They’re keeping their arms loose, they’re keeping their feet loose. He’s just keeping them active.”

It is hard to construe that activity as a negative, but it obviously lacks certain aspects crucial to Wimbush’s 2017 season. With only five career pass attempts and seven career rushes, Wimbush’s inexperience looms large. Developing the necessary intangibles to account for that may be just as, if not more, important as fitting his throws into tight windows.

“When it comes to the playbook, to his teammates, to his coaches here, Brandon understands that when the rubber hits the road, those are the guys that matter the most,” Kelly said. “He knows when it’s time for Notre Dame football, where the focus is.”

Included in that playbook will be an expectation for Wimbush to carry the ball. To date, Wimbush’s biggest play and possibly only imprint on most Notre Dame fans’ memories is a 58-yard touchdown scamper against Massachusetts in 2015.

Link to 17-second YouTube video which has unfortunately disabled embedding

Note, the play is not exclusively-designed for Wimbush to run. Now a rising junior, then a fellow freshman, running back Josh Adams comes across Wimbush’s front for a possible handoff. Instead, Wimbush makes the correct read and keeps the ball. Why state so clearly it was the proper read? Adams has to evade a Texas defender even though he never had the ball.

Future option plays should present Wimbush with the possibility of throwing the ball, too.

“He’ll be a runner in the offense,” Kelly said. “Do we want him to carry the ball 20 times? No.”

“I don’t think you’ll have a situation where we’re calling quarterback power or singular runs. He’s going to have options: hand it off, throw the ball out on the perimeter. You’ll see more of that than you will prescribed quarterback runs. We had a little bit more of that last year with Kizer, but I think you’ll see that he has an option to get the ball out of his hands more so than just prescribed runs.”

Those option plays, in particular, will require Wimbush to have a thorough familiarity both with the Notre Dame playbook and with his teammates’ tendencies.

RITA LEE OR 52-53?
Staying consistent with his comments over the last two months, Kelly once again reiterated the biggest changes new offensive coordinator Chip Long will bring to the Irish playbook will be in its wording. Perhaps going to an extreme example to illustrate his thinking, Kelly pointed to the future.

“We’re going to win next year and Chip is going to be the greatest offensive coordinator in the country and he’s going to get a head job, right?” Kelly asked rhetorically. “Then I’m not going to introduce the Chip Long offense to the next offensive coordinator.”

“It has to have my culture in it … The culture of the offense is still the base offense that I have always run because I have to be able to carry that with me from year to year.”

Within that ellipsis, Kelly gave two examples of possible verbiage changes. Without knowing much more behind them, they do not mean too much out here in the cobwebs of the internet, but they do provide a quick glimpse at what Kelly has been referring to when discussing lexicon since hiring Long.

“If he wants to change Ringo Lucky protection to Ram and Lion protection, go right ahead. If he wants to change certain calls, for example, 52-53 protection is now Rita Lee.”

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