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.

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.