Clausen making strong case for Heisman consideration
October 7, 2009, 8:19 PM
By: Eric Hansen
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Roger Valdiserri, the man who three decades ago rhymed "Theismann" with "Heisman," preached restraint.
"Gosh, Jimmy Clausen has matured so much in two years I can't believe it," the retired longtime Notre Dame sports information director and associate athletic director said. "I think he's the best I've seen this year, and I watch a lot of games, because I vote in the Harris Poll. But as far as starting a Heisman campaign, I would wait a couple of more games. They have some tough games coming up. You don't want to shoot the cannon off too soon."
Then again, the cannon might have a mind of its own.
The Notre Dame junior quarterback's ascendance to the No. 1 spot nationally in passing efficiency after five largely drama-laden weeks of the 2009 season may not have prompted anyone to change the pronunciation of his name, but he is suddenly embedded in the Heisman discussion, nonetheless.
Playing on a bad wheel (turf toe) and without one of the most explosive receivers in the country (Michael Floyd) for the past two and half games, Clausen has turned adversity into an ally.
Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen still faces a tough test against USC, but he's becoming one of the hottest names when talking about the Heisman Trophy.
The Westlake Village, Calif., product rates third in ESPN's latest weekly Heisman poll, second in Sports Illustrated's and first in CBSSports.com's.
"I think he's grown up tremendously as a young man and as a quarterback," observed former Notre Dame standout quarterback and 1970 Heisman runner-up Joe Theismann, who himself grew up pronouncing his last name THEEZ-man until Valdiserri got ahold of him.
"Jimmy's first year, he looked like a deer in headlights. His second year, he looked like a deer in darkness. Now he looks like a quarterback who has a wonderful future."
The struggle and transformation might be Clausen's greatest Heisman hook. Last year the No. 1 overall college prospect in the 2007 recruiting cycle was 43rd in passing efficiency.
In 2007, playing with a surgically repaired elbow that hadn't healed completely and behind what was at the time the worst pass protection in Football Bowl Subdivision history, Clausen didn't even crack the top 100.
"The biggest thing, I think, is the game is coming to him," Theismann said. "I felt like in his first couple of years he felt like he had something to prove. He played like a guy who tried to force issues and make plays. Today what he does, if a guy's not open, he throws the ball away. He's playing very, very intelligent football at the quarterback position.
"He's allowing the defense to go do their job. He's allowing the receivers to go make plays. He's allowing the running backs to go do their job. You're sort of the conductor of an orchestra when you play that position.
"In the first couple of years, it looks like he wanted to be not only the conductor but wanted to play the percussion section and the horn section and a few other things."
The melody, when converted to numbers, looks something like this:
Clausen is 100-of-148 (.676) for 1,544 yards with 12 touchdowns and two interceptions, which translates to the nation's best pass-efficiency rating (179.25).
Clausen's 179.25 pace is far better than the Notre Dame all-time record of 161.4 by Bob Williams in 1949. By comparison, Brady Quinn's best numbers were 158.4 in 2005 and 146.7 in 2006, when he finished third in the Heisman balloting.
Clausen has been at his best when the game is on the line. In the fourth quarter and overtime of ND's five games this season, the 6-foot-3, 223-pounder is 29-of-45 for 396 yards and four TDs with no interceptions.
And the stat of most significance for the long haul: The Irish have played 20 quarters of football this year -- 10 with Floyd, 10 without the injured standout wide receiver.
While Clausen's and ND's overall offensive numbers shriveled last year during a three-game absence by Floyd, that doesn't appear to be the case this year.
In the 10 quarters with Floyd, Notre Dame had 11 passes of 20 yards or more. In the 10 without, Notre Dame has 11 passes of 20 yards or more.
And yet Clausen's most impressive game was the one where his numbers were the worst. In a 24-21 victory at Purdue on Sept. 26, Clausen played only about half the game with an injury that would have kept some players on the sideline.
In the end, he threw for a mortal 171 yards (15-of-26) -- his only game among his past six dating back to the Hawaii Bowl last Christmas Eve in which he didn't amass 300 yards or more. He had one touchdown and his first interception of the season.
But 69 of those yards came as the junior quarterback drove the Irish 72 yards in 12 plays, connecting with tight end Kyle Rudolph on a fourth-down scoring play with 24.8 seconds left as Notre Dame survived.
"I got more text messages [that night] from NFL people saying that same thing: 'Good to see a quarterback with some guts,' " ND coach Charlie Weis said. "The word might not have been 'guts,' but I got several of them on the way home, and they were impressed."
After an open date this Saturday, a date with destiny looms Oct. 17, when seventh-ranked USC comes to town.
Whatever flaws the Trojans have shown offensively, they have yet to show on the defensive side.
USC is the only team in the country that has not allowed a TD pass, and the Trojans have surrendered only three touchdowns period.
"Every football player wants to be in a game like this," Theismann said. "You want to be Jimmy Clausen in this football game, because it's an opportunity to measure yourself against an extremely good football team.
"Now how do you measure yourself? You measure yourself by decisions. You measure yourself by performance. He's got a week off to get healthier, so the stars are aligned. He has a chance to do something special. And you know what? He's earned it."
Wheels in motion
Brian Hardin, ND's current sports information director for football, started thinking about ways to accelerate Clausen's Heisman candidacy over the past couple of weeks.
He is in the process of putting together a Web site that will have stats and video highlights for Clausen, Rudolph, safety Kyle McCarthy and wide receiver Golden Tate.
"We'll probably will do something extra with Clausen, but making sure it stays within the parameters of what the university stands for," Hardin said.
He also knows not to get too ornate.
Hardin studied a 2005 dissertation by Florida State doctoral candidate Clark D. Haptonstall. Among Haptonstall's findings:
Heisman Trophy voters rely more on information about a candidate they collect on their own than information provided by a university.
Ninety-four percent of the voters view a player's performance in marquee games as important or very important in determining who ultimately receives their vote for the Heisman Trophy.
Candidates with national TV exposure have a decided advantage.
Only 6 percent of the voters thought a weekly postcard with updated stats was even "somewhat important." E-mail updates didn't prove to be much more fruitful.
Things like billboards. bobblehead dolls, posters and bumper stickers get plenty of attention but have no positive effect on voting.
A dedicated Web site was ranked 27th on a list of the 30 most important factors, and voters disliked Web sites with obvious propaganda.
Only 10 percent of Heisman voters thought pro potential was important.
Strength of schedule matters a ton.
"If I could make Clausen rhyme with Heisman, I'd do it," Hardin quipped. "Really, we're in a fortunate position, because at Notre Dame, we don't have to create awareness. The best promotion for Jimmy is what he does every Saturday on national TV."
It's been 22 seasons since Tim Brown became Notre Dame's record seventh Heisman Trophy winner. Since then, USC and Ohio State have both caught up.
Rocket Ismail's second-place finish in 1990 has been the closest for a Notre Dame player since.
There's a common thread that runs through all seven Irish winners: Humble beginnings.
Brown was a freshman about to embark on his first season playing for Gerry Faust in 1984, when Faust told him just days before the season kicked off that he would be eased into the Irish lineup for Notre Dame's opener with Purdue in Indianapolis.
"The coaches knew, down here in Dallas, I had never played in front of more than a couple of hundred folks," Brown recalled. "But when [coach] Gerry Faust is giving his big speech in the locker room, he ends it with, 'Tim Brown, I want you to return the opening kickoff.' I was just shaking in my pants, man."
So shaken was Brown that he forgot his helmet in the locker room and had to run back to get it. That was the last vivid memory of the opening moments of the game.
"I can honestly say I don't remember what happened," he said with a chuckle. "All I know is they squib kicked the ball to me. I remember getting over to it and getting my hands on it. And I saw a hole and started running.
"It was weird, because I'm like, 'Why isn't anybody trying to tackle me?' At some point. I must have dropped the ball. I must have freaked out, went into shock or something, because I have no recollection of fumbling the ball. I know I didn't get hit. I finally turned around, and it was like, 'What happened?' What a way to start your career."
John Huarte (1964) earned his first letter at Notre Dame after winning the Heisman. He had barely played as a junior or sophomore, and no freshmen played in that era.
Paul Hornung (1956) had to endure a coaching change -- the legendary Frank Leahy to the mortal Terry Brennan -- after his freshman season and played with an extremely inexperienced supporting cast his senior year and with two dislocated thumbs in his final game.
John Lattner (1953) was told he wasn't fast enough or flashy enough to make it at Notre Dame by friends and neighbors in his Chicago West Side neighborhood. He also had to overcome five fumbles his junior season in a game against Purdue and the wrath from Leahy that came along with it.
Leon Hart (1949) was so fired up when he was called into his first game, he collided with a teammate on his way from the sideline to the huddle.
John Lujack (1947) was thrust into action in the seventh game of his sophomore year when 1943 Heisman Trophy winner and starting quarterback Angelo Bertelli was called up by the Marines just before Notre Dame's showdown with third-ranked Army in '43. Lujack then had to face eighth-ranked Northwestern, No. 2 Iowa Pre-Flight and powerful Great Lakes to finish the season. He then missed almost three years of school, including two football seasons, serving his country in the Navy during World War II.
Bertelli (1943) had to learn a new offense in 1942, when Leahy bagged the old Notre Dame box for the T-formation. Then he didn't even think he would play in 1943 due to an imminent call-up by the Marine Corps during World War II.
Clausen's crash into Notre Dame fans' consciousness came in a white stretch Hummer limo.
He flashed rings and talked of multiple national titles. He reeked of privilege and pedigree.
But when he was almost obliterated by his inexperience and the circumstances he was swimming in the past two years, Clausen was viewed as a flop. As a spoiled, white-collar quarterback who couldn't rise above his affluence.
And then one day, between a humiliating season-ending loss to USC last November and the breakout performance in the Hawaii Bowl, Clausen pushed back.
And when more puffs of adversity came his way, Clausen used them to make himself stronger.
"Jimmy has always wanted to be good, but he never quite knew how," Theismann said. "I think Jimmy's in a very unique position. When he came out of high school, he was the most highly touted quarterback in the country. He was the one everybody wanted. And from Jimmy's perspective, it's almost like it's back to a couple of years ago, where everybody's talking about Jimmy Clausen being really special.
"I think when he came to Notre Dame, he believed all that. He's a much more mature young man right now and he knows that every snap in practice and every opportunity he's taking advantage of."
And now comes USC, the backyard school the Californian turned his back on a few years ago to take a chance with Weis.
"When somebody's been beat down and beat up and rises to the occasion like he has, you've defined yourself no matter what happens against USC," Theismann said. "He really looks like he's having fun playing football. He's jumping around. He's excited. Jimmy is in control of this football team. He's turning this into a movie. And it's getting started."
Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.
Award-winning journalist Eric Hansen, 48, has been covering college athletics since 1983 and is currently assistant sports editor and the Notre Dame football beat writer for the South Bend Tribune.