The Jimmy Clausen Mystery

by Tommy Lawlor ,

Let’s talk about Jimmy Clausen.  He is the most confusing prospect of the 1st round.  Jimmy is a good football player.  There is a lot to like about him.  There are also some legitimate questions to ask.  For some reason he’s become a real divisive subject.  I guess people got tired of arguing about Tim Tebow and shifted the focus to Clausen.  You’re either an “apologist” for him or “a hater”.  I don’t really have an agenda as far as Jimmy goes.  I’m just curious as to where he’ll land.   Top 10 pick or a guy who will slide into the 20s?

Jimmy might be the most NFL ready of the QB class.  He played in a pro style offense for an NFL guy (Charlie Weis).  There was no spread attack or Run ‘n’ Shoot.  He didn’t play in the WAC or MWC.  Jimmy came from a very conventional setting.  Jimmy has pretty good mechanics.  He is a drop-back passer and understands reading progressions.  Jimmy started for 3 years and has plenty of experience.  He has the physical tools to play in the NFL.  He has good size.  He has an above average arm.  Jimmy is okay athletically, but won’t wow anyone.

As for his performance, he got better each season, capped by a great year in 2009.  He finished 3rd in the nation in Passing Efficiency.  He completed 68 % of his passes.  He threw for 3,722 yards.  He had 28 TDs and an amazing 4 INTs.  Wow.  While ND doesn’t run the spread, they did mix in screens to RBs, WR, and TEs.  This wasn’t all deep outs and skinny posts.  Still, those are very impressive numbers.

Jimmy is at his best on short and intermediate routes.  He is accurate.  He puts good touch on his throws.  He knew he had gifted receivers and always put the ball in a spot where they could go get it.  He would throw into coverage at times, but that was done in order to give his guys a chance to make a play.  He generally makes good reads and smart decisions.  Jimmy has pretty good pocket presence.  He’s able to feel the rush and move around.  He does have a key weakness in this area.  He holds the ball too long.  Jimmy believes he can find the open guy if he just holds the ball one more second.  That leads to unnecessary sacks.  He has one awful habit.  Jimmy has run out of bounds for a sack more than any QB I’ve ever seen.  I understood this in 2007 when he was a Freshman with mediocre blocking.  I don’t understand why he’s still doing it now.  Throw the ball away.  Save the yardage.  His deep passes are deceiving.  ND had success with the vertical passing game, but most of that credit goes to Golden Tate and Michael Floyd.  They adjusted to off target throws.  They made tough catches.  They also caught the ball well in traffic and pulled off some minor miracles for Jimmy.

I am not a fan of Junior QBs.  Only 2 of the 12 playoff teams had QBs who left college early.  Only 4 of the top 20 rated passers were guys who came out as Juniors.  The odds are stacked against you.  QB is a position where every game you start is a help.  It builds experience and trains you for the NFL.  I think NFL teams have to be real careful about Junior QBs.  Take a guy if he’s special in some way.  Matt Stafford was physically gifted and was an accomplished SEC player.  Mark Sanchez was part of a great program.  He had limited starts, but did lead USC to a Rose Bowl win.  He also had a special personality.  I remember hearing Kirk Herbstreit talk about the way the team loved him.  I thought that was just an announcer waxing poetic, but last year with the Jets you could see the same thing.  Sanchez is just one of those guys that teammates love.  He’s their guy.

What do we make of Jimmy Clausen in these areas?  We’ll start with winning.  Jimmy was only 16-19 in his career at ND.  He went to one bowl game and won it.  They could have gone to a bowl this year, but it would have been a lesser game due to the team’s 6-6 record.  Jimmy only won 3 road games in 3 years.  Let’s look at the games ND won with Clausen starting:

Nevada (8-5)
Michigan State (6-7)
Purdue (5-7)
Washington (5-7)
Boston College (8-5)
Washington State (1-11)

San Diego State (2-10)
Michigan (3-9)
Purdue (4-8)
Stanford (5-7)
Washington (0-12)
Navy (8-5)
Hawaii (7-7)

UCLA (6-7)
Duke (1-11)
Stanford (4-8)

Clearly you don’t blame Jimmy for the losses. My point is to try and get a feel for the kind of teams he was able to beat. In college a truly great player can often carry his team to do special things. This can give you a false read sometimes. After all, Ryan Leaf carried Washington State to the Rose Bowl while Peyton Manning couldn’t get UT over the hump against Florida or to the National Title game.

This is not an impressive collection of W’s.  His best wins in college were over Michigan State, Purdue, and Washington, all from this year.  All 3 games went down to the wire.  Jimmy showed the ability to lead his team from behind and score late in the game.  That’s important.  All NFL QBs get in a pickle and have to do that at some point.  Some guys thrive in pressure situations.  Jimmy did very well.  The only downside is that these weren’t great defenses.  Purdue had the 37th ranked pass defense, which is solid.  Washington was 93rd and Michigan State 112th.

The thing I’m trying to figure out isn’t whether Clausen has talent or is any good.  Put on the game tape and you can see he’s talented.  The question is whether he’s a franchise QB that you “must” go get or whether he’s simply a solid QB prospect.  Does he go Top 10 or in the early 20s?  Is he a special player?  Does he do special things?  The only elite defense that he faced was USC.  In 2 games (he missed the ’07 meeting) against the Trojans Jimmy was:

2009 – 24-43-260…2 TDs, no INTs…he did run for a TD
2008 – 11-22-41…. 0 TDs, 2 INTs

What the heck do you make of Clausen?  He didn’t win big games in college.  At the same time, he didn’t have a great O-line or running game to help him out.  Jimmy put up big numbers, but they came largely against mediocre defenses.  And he did have good skill players to work with.

He is a tough guy.  He played through a toe injury in 2009 and gritted it out.  Some people have questioned the relationship between him and his teammates, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe there were any major issues.  He doesn’t give off the Sanchez vibe where his teammates love him.  I never sensed that.

I do get the feeling that Jimmy is a hard worker that will pay the price to be as good as he can.  He just needs the right pieces around him.  I would not spend a Top 10 pick on him because I don’t see him making a bad NFL team substantially better.  I don’t think Clausen is the kind of QB that can take pedestrian skill players and raise their level of play.  I do think he can be a solid starter on the right team.  His best case scenario is to get with someone in the 20-30 range that already has a strong core of players.  I believe this is one case where going early might be the worst thing that could happen to the prospect.  It won’t surprise me for a team to take him early on.  After all, this is a weak QB class.  And someone may see special potential in Jimmy.  I don’t, but that’s what makes the draft so interesting.  We all see things somewhat differently.



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