Stars aligned for Clausen to succeed

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Casey Clausen remembers watching his little brother Jimmy play quarterback for Notre Dame as a freshman two years ago. One thought stuck in his head.

"I was just hoping he didn't get killed out there," Casey says. "He was a young boy playing against men out there."

Irish fans saw something different. They envisioned Jimmy Clausen as the Golden Boy, the one who would lead their program back to greatness. This was, after all, the No. 1 quarterback recruit in the country. This was the guy who announced his decision to go to Notre Dame by showing up to the College Football Hall of Fame in a stretch Hummer, flashing his high school championship rings. The subtext wasn't exactly subtle.

Two years into his career, Clausen has a 10-12 record as a starter, has completed less than 60 percent of his passes and has only nine more touchdown passes than interceptions. He has faced whispers about his leadership and his ability to handle the searing spotlight that comes with playing quarterback in South Bend.

So it's fair to say that this is a make-or-break season for Clausen, as it is for his head coach, Charlie Weis. The good news is that everything seems in place for him to make a huge leap. He has a deep, talented receiving corps, an experienced line for protection and a schedule tailor-made for success.

Maybe most importantly, though, he's not a skinny freshman anymore. He's a seasoned junior.

"When you come in as a freshman quarterback, especially here at Notre Dame, especially with the hype, when you come in rated as the best player in the country, sometimes we forget that these are just teenagers," Weis said. "We treat them like it's Tom Brady or Peyton Manning. They're just teenagers coming in the door.

"I think as he's gone through the first year, the aches that went through the first year, developing more the second year, I think now he kind of has the mentality that a lot of those juniors/seniors now have, where like they paid their dues and they've learned from their experiences."

Clausen always could make every throw in the playbook. It's his head, not his arm, that people have questioned.

He seemed to be putting it all together early last season while leading Notre Dame to a 4-1 start. But in a loss to North Carolina, he threw two costly interceptions, and things went downhill from there. Eleven of his 17 interceptions came in the final seven regular-season games -- including an ugly four-pick performance against Boston College -- and the Irish not coincidentally went just 2-5 in those contests.

"I tried to take some chances last year, and the running game wasn't going so well," he said.

And when things weren't going well, Clausen didn't exactly force his teammates to rally around him.

I was just hoping he didn't get killed out there. He was a young boy playing against men out there.

-- Casey Clausen on brother Jimmy's first season

He always has been reserved and guarded in his public statements, sounding roughly as interesting as a book about bridge. That caused some to wonder whether he simply had a robotic personality because of the way he was brought up -- brothers Casey and Rick played quarterback at Tennessee, his dad is a coach and he's had his own personal coaches and trainers most of his life. Was Clausen just a new version of Todd Marinovich?

Former Notre Dame quarterback and CBS analyst Steve Beuerlein basically posed that question in some critical comments to the Chicago Tribune in December. Beuerlein told the newspaper, "When you're meeting a Notre Dame quarterback, you expect to walk away and say, 'Man, that guy is sharp. He's got it going on.' You can just sense something. Without getting into it, those are the things, the few times I've talked to him, I haven't come away thinking."

Casey, who used to bring his younger brother to Tennessee summer practices and meetings, said Jimmy's true personality rarely shines through.

"He's a goofball," Casey said. "People don't really see it, but he's an outgoing, personable and laid-back kid. He likes to hang out with his guys, go to the movies and dinner, go to the lake and go water skiing."

Jimmy Clausen admits that he didn't always handle himself well out in public, either, when fans wanted a picture or an autograph when all he wanted was to be left alone. But he says that is changing.

"Coming in, I really didn't know all the expectations of being the quarterback at Notre Dame," he said. "There were times when I was like, why are these things happening? Why can't I go out and not have people come up to me? But I understand what it is now, and I'm cherishing the position."

There also are signs that his leadership skills are improving. Observers say he has been more vocal in practice. This summer, he flew star receivers Golden Tate and Michael Floyd and tight end Kyle Rudolph to his family's California home for a week, developing a shorthand through passing drills and bonding at the beach. This past weekend, he was named one of four captains in a teamwide vote.

"When you come in as a freshman and you're thrown into fire as a quarterback, really the team doesn't want to hear you," Weis said. "They just want you to call the plays and run the plays. Obviously, that's no longer the case. Now his peers perceive him as one of the leaders of the team, and that's a significant change from when he first walked into the door."

As for his performance on the field, well, consider that Clausen's career numbers are actually better in most categories than the first two years of Brady Quinn, Matthew Stafford and JaMarcus Russell. In the last game he played, Clausen was nearly flawless in the Hawaii Bowl, completing 22 of 26 passes for 401 yards, five touchdowns and no interceptions. His four incompletions all came as the result of dropped balls.

Was that a sign of things to come or merely a brilliant day against a mediocre WAC team?

"It's still just part of his evolution," said Notre Dame quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus, who knows a little something about living up to high expectations in South Bend. "He's definitely evolved to the point where I don't know that we'll always see games like that, but we'll see more games closer to that."

And maybe Jimmy Clausen is closer to living up to his Golden Boy status.

Brian Bennett is ESPN.com's Big East football blogger.