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Irish hand reins to Clausen

The highly touted freshman from Westlake Village Oaks Christian will get the start at quarterback on Saturday at Penn State.

September 05, 2007|Ken Fowler | Special to the Times

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Saying, "I think he gives us the best chance of winning," Notre Dame football Coach Charlie Weis on Tuesday tabbed freshman Jimmy Clausen to start at quarterback for the Fighting Irish on Saturday against Penn State.

Clausen, from Westlake Village Oaks Christian High, played only two series in the fourth quarter during Notre Dame's season-opening 33-3 drubbing by Georgia Tech.

Although he was widely considered the nation's top recruit at his position and was atop Notre Dame's depth chart coming out of spring practice, Clausen only recently regained full strength in his throwing arm after having arthroscopic surgery on his elbow to remove a bone spur. His recovery time limited his participation in early summer practices and took him out of contention to be the starter in the opener.

Sophomore Demetrius Jones got the start against Georgia Tech, but a run-heavy spread option offense that Weis tailored specifically for Jones could not sustain any drives.

Weis replaced Jones with junior Evan Sharpley late in the first half, a change that brought mixed results. Sharpley completed 10 of 13 passes for 92 yards and manufactured the team's only scoring drive, but he also was sacked seven times and lost a fumble.

Clausen entered with 8 minutes 52 seconds left in the fourth quarter and completed four of six passes for 34 yards.

"The best thing that happened was [he] got into the game last week," Weis said Tuesday. "I would be more concerned if his first reps were in front of 107,000 in Happy Valley, but I think we got that out of the way in the fourth quarter last week."

Weis said he was "not looking to play musical quarterbacks" and that Clausen, who enrolled at Notre Dame in January, was more of a permanent pick than his decision to start Jones against Georgia Tech.

"This evaluation process really was one that went on through the whole spring right on to this point right now," the coach said.

Clausen, Jones and Sharpley were not made available to the media Tuesday, which is Notre Dame's designated day for interviews of offensive players.

Weis informed the three quarterbacks of his decision Monday night.

Bill Redell, Clausen's high school coach, said his former star seemed "excited about it" when he spoke with him Tuesday morning.

"Really, I just expected him to be the starter as soon as he got his elbow well," Redell said. "But I don't think any commitment was made to him. I think he had to earn it."

Weis says he hopes Notre Dame responds to Clausen and the more traditional, pro-style attack that will probably accompany his presence. He said he expected the young team to be more comfortable in the structure he used with Brady Quinn as his quarterback the last two years than the one he implemented for Georgia Tech.

"I don't think any of them should feel comfortable with how we played last week. I mean, I think that they all should feel uncomfortable," Weis said. "But I think that there's -- not to be subjective here -- but there is a comfort zone when you have more familiarity with what you're doing."

Notre Dame's running backs had difficulty picking up Georgia Tech blitzes, leading to a net of minus-eight rushing yards.

Clausen takes over a team that is in a far different place from his high school squads at Oaks Christian. In his four years there, Clausen won all 42 of his starts and Oaks Christian won four consecutive Southern Section division championships.

Now, Clausen's goal will be to right the ship of a team that was blown out at home. Dating to last season, Notre Dame has lost three consecutive games by at least 20 points.

On Saturday, Clausen will face a Penn State defense that held Florida International to 114 yards of offense and sacked its quarterbacks seven times.

But starting a freshman quarterback at Notre Dame after beginning the season with someone else at the helm is not new to the school.

In 2003, Quinn started Notre Dame's fourth game, against Purdue, after the team struggled to a 1-2 start behind Carlyle Holiday.

Quinn completed 29 of 59 attempts that day though Notre Dame lost, 23-10. That was the beginning of Quinn's starting 47 consecutive games.

Redell has confidence that Clausen is ready to do the job.

"If there's anybody capable of starting as a freshman at quarterback at a school like Notre Dame, it would be Jimmy Clausen," he said.

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