A team will only go as far as its leader can take it.
For Notre Dame, Jimmy Clausen has to be that leader. He has to bear the burden of expectation and the intense heat of scrutiny as he prepares to captain the Fighting Irish through their most crucial season of the Charlie Weis era.
Clausen, by now, should be familiar with pressure. He arrived at his press conference in South Bend to announce his signing in a limo. He held the event not at the University, but at the College Football Hall of Fame, where he declared that he wanted to win four national titles for the Irish.
With his brashness, he drew more than a little fire. Even Notre Dame-friendly Lou Holtz couldn't resist bashing the nation's No. 1 recruit in saying, "Usually a player gets to the Hall of Fame AFTER their career."
Clausen learned quickly that being the quarterback at Notre Dame was a little different than being a prep star.
In 2007, Clausen endured weekly beatings on and off the football field as the Irish trudged their way to a 3-9 record, establishing several all-time lows. Clausen's swagger was gone. It was clear that there was little talent on the Irish roster, and questions began to swirl as to whether he would stay enrolled at Notre Dame.
Clausen did come back for the 2008 season, along with another highly touted recruit in Dayne Crist. There was initial speculation that Crist may take the starting job from Clausen.
The season saw Crist remain on the sideline (earning Notre Dame's version of a redshirt) with Clausen grasping the starting job, having the best statistical season that an Irish signal caller not named Brady Quinn has ever had.
For 2009, a new kind of pressure awaits Clausen. It's not the nagging pressure of doubt or the scrutiny of those who want him to fail—now he must meet expectations.
Clausen is a captain, has found his name on the Maxwell Award watch list, and finds his team in the national rankings for the first time. He is an upperclassman and can no longer use "learning" as an excuse. As his coach says, "It's time to put up."
Clausen's 2008 season mirrored the Irish: Notre Dame literally succeeded as Clausen did. There were moments of sheer brilliance and hints that what is to come may be special. But there were also moments that reminded us that he, along with his team, is still young and still learning.
Games against Michigan State and North Carolina both turned on ill-advised interceptions on similar plays. Each time Clausen locked onto Golden Tate and threw a ball into the flat without locating the safety, who jumped the route and made the interception. These are mistakes that a young quarterback makes, but which a championship quarterback cannot afford.
For the Irish to rise to the level of expectation in 2009, they must have Clausen among college football's best passers. He ranked 40th in 2008, completing 60.9 percent of his throws for 3,172 yards, 25 touchdowns, and 17 interceptions. He needs to increase completions to be in the 65 percent range and cut down on the INTs.
The most direct way that Notre Dame can help Clausen grow is to run the football effectively. In six losses last year, Notre Dame managed only 377 yards on 167 carries—a dreadful 2.2 yard-per-carry average.
Only against Pittsburgh did Notre Dame surpass the 100-yard mark on the ground and lose. In the other losses, the Irish ground game averaged only 52 yards a game on 25 carries.
Against Syracuse, Notre Dame could only muster 41 yards, and they set an all-time worst of only 16 yards on 22 carries versus Michigan State.
Critics of Clausen's game point to his 17 interceptions as an indication that he is flawed as a player. It seems more amazing that he produced as well as he did despite the total lack of a running attack.
Given a little help in the rushing department and better pass protection, Clausen could easily flourish in the upcoming season.
In the offseason he has already shown his leadership and desire to win by flying Tate, Michael Floyd, and Kyle Rudolph out to California for a week of eight hour a day workout sessions.
Before that, he came into spring practice determined and quickly put to bed any thoughts of Dayne Crist emerging. He has continued this into camp, showing accuracy and strength while displaying a firm grasp on the offense.
Clausen is expected to have a big season, and the Irish along with him. He has the talent to live up to his hype and keep Irish eyes smiling all autumn.