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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS | ERIC SONDHEIMER

It's Been a Tennessee Waltz for Clausen, but He Knows Where Home Is

November 19, 2000|ERIC SONDHEIMER

The other day during football practice in Knoxville, Tenn., when the temperature dipped into the 30s and beach-loving, sun-craving Southern California native Casey Clausen was clinging desperately to his hand warmers, a coach asked, "What's wrong with you?"

"I'm freezing," Clausen said.

And enjoying every minute of it.

"Being out here is everything I expected and more," he said.

The former Alemany High quarterback is still adjusting to the cool temperatures of the South and getting used to eating chicken fried steak dipped in gravy and mashed potatoes, but he has no plans to board a plane back to California. Even if he tried to leave, the state's rabid football fans wouldn't let him.

Clausen has become a bona fide celebrity at Tennessee, helping the Volunteers win five consecutive games as a 19-year-old freshman starter.

He can't take a trip to the mall, go to a restaurant or see a movie without someone recognizing him.

"Right now, anywhere I go, people know who I am," he said. "They come up and ask for an autograph. They come up and talk to you. They're nice and friendly."

Teammates tease him about his California ties, insisting he's a double for actor Val Kilmer and calling him "Ice Man" from the movie, "Top Gun."

Clausen was well prepared for his Tennessee experience. His father, Jim, a former coach, exposed him to the ups and downs of athletics from an early age, making him tough and resilient.

His coach at Alemany, Jim Bonds, a former UCLA quarterback, introduced him to the intricacies of the passing game and got him ready to contribute immediately at the college level.

But it was Clausen's self-confidence and swagger that gave him the opportunity to start so early at Tennessee. He made the decision to graduate from Alemany last January so he could enroll in time for spring practice at Tennessee. That gutsy decision, to leave family and friends months before his high school class officially graduated, was crucial to accelerating his development.

"That was the key--coming in early and getting an edge and getting a feel for college life," he said. "Going through spring practice, going in full pads was a huge factor for myself to get a feel for the game and get used to the speed. If I wouldn't have come in early, I wouldn't be where I am now. It was that important."

Clausen won the quarterback job because of sound, smart decision-making during games. He has completed 63% of his passes for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns with four interceptions.

On Saturday, he completed 19 of 24 passes for 362 yards and four touchdowns in a 59-20 victory over Kentucky. Most importantly, with each game, he has continued to improve.

"The main thing is never be satisfied with what you did yesterday," he said. "Try to improve and get better every single day."

If first impressions mean anything, Clausen surely opened some eyes in his first start against Alabama. No one will forget watching him ignore the referee's whistle during one play and refuse to go down even though his helmet had been knocked off.

"After the play, I went to the referee, 'Why did you blow the whistle?' " Clausen said. "He said, 'Son, as soon as your helmet is off, the play is dead,' but I'm not going to stop. I was just trying to make something happen. I'm from California and we don't stop until the play is done."

Helping Clausen achieve a level of comfort in Tennessee has been his family. His mother, father, sister and two brothers have made frequent trips to his games, boarding red-eye flights Friday night out of LAX.

"Any time I get a chance to see them, it's real special," he said.

Clausen has taken particular pleasure in letting his younger brother, Jimmy, 13, a sixth-grader at Chaminade Middle School and a promising quarterback, to see and experience what it's like to play college football.

"As soon as the game is over, he comes into the locker room and press room," Clausen said. "I try to expose him to everything and try to do like my dad did with me and [my brother] Rick. I want to show him everything.

"From day one, I've said [Jimmy is] going to be the best athlete of the family."

Said Jimmy: "It's amazing to see him all grown up and going through the media interviews. It's fun to watch. After the game, everyone asks for autographs. It's pretty cool."

Rick, a senior quarterback at Taft who has committed to Louisiana State, is going to follow Casey and graduate in January so he can compete in spring practice. No one in the family wants to think about what will happen when LSU plays Tennessee and two Clausens are facing each other.

"I guess my mom will have to get a half Tennessee and half LSU sweatshirt," Casey said.

Clausen keeps track of Rick, who was the back-up for two years at Alemany before becoming the starter at Taft.

"It would be real tough if I was in his shoes and had to sit for two years behind an older brother," he said. "I'm really happy for him."

As much fun as he's having in Tennessee, Clausen isn't about to sever his Southern California ties.

"When my time is done, I'll be right back," he said. "[Former Notre Dame defensive tackle] Travis Johnson and I have talked about getting a place in Newport Beach. I'll be enjoying the sun and the beach."

*

Eric Sondheimer's local column appears Wednesday and Sunday. He can be reached at (818) 772-3422 or eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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