Irish eyes attract Clausen to South Bend
Last fall, on the first day Jimmy Clausen was allowed to be recruited face-to-face by a college football coach, he was sitting in his high school English class.
And got a tap on the shoulder.
"Come downstairs," he was told. "Coach Weis is here."
That's when the romance escalated between Notre Dame and the No. 1 quarterback in the nation. While other coaches were recruiting the Class of 2006 that day, Irish head coach Charlie Weis -- at 8 a.m. on a weekday -- was staking out the jewel of 2007.
"Charlie could have visited any high school senior in the country that morning, but he went to see a high school junior," said a source close to the recruitment. "That left an impression on Jimmy."
The reward came Saturday. Clausen, now a high school senior-to-be and the most acclaimed California prep quarterback since John Elway, verbally committed to the Fighting Irish during a news conference at the College Football Hall of Fame.
He chose Notre Dame over USC, so he could be mentored by the QB guru Weis. Clausen is the front-runner to replace Heisman candidate Brady Quinn as the Irish starter in 2007.
"The deciding factor on this whole thing was Coach Weis," Clausen told ESPN prior to his news conference. "If you look at what he's done with all the guys he's coached, like Tom Brady, and what he's doing right now with Brady Quinn in one year, it's pretty special ... I'll never forget that day he showed up at school. I didn't know he was coming. School starts at 7:45, and right at 8 o'clock, he was in my coach's office, waiting to see me, and even though I wasn't allowed to speak to him, I thought that was really special, because he was the first guy there."
Clausen, 6-foot-3, 207-pounds, has thrown 88 touchdowns and only l1 interceptions in his past two seasons at Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, Calif., his team averaging 53 points a game. He is 27-0 as a starter, has completed 68 percent of his passes over the last two years and has thrown for 7,234 career yards. He is the younger brother of recent Tennessee quarterbacks Casey and Rick Clausen, although both say their kid brother is more accurate, more unflappable and more polished. "He's better than both of us right now," Rick Clausen said.
Clausen, a 3.3 student who has taken courses at Ventura (Calif.) Junior College so he can graduate early from high school, will enroll at Notre Dame this coming January and will be eligible for next year's spring practices. He has been working out four days a week with a strength coach, has put on 20 pounds over the last four months and says he is committing early to the Irish so he can lure other premier recruits to South Bend.
Three of the top wideouts from the Class of 2007, Arrelious Benn of Washington D.C., Duval Kamara of Hoboken, N.J. and Deonte Thompson of Belle Glade, Fla., are on the Notre Dame campus Saturday, for the Irish spring game, and Clausen will ask them, and others, to join him. Also on hand Saturday will be Clausen's high school teammate, Marc Tyler, who gained 2,196 yards and scored 39 touchdowns last season. He is the son of former Rams halfback Wendell Tyler.
Weis, the former Patriots offensive coordinator, first saw film of Clausen last summer as a sophomore, and quickly made him his No. 1 recruiting priority. The Clausen family then took an unofficial visit to South Bend. According to Jimmy, Weis assured him he was the only QB he'd recruit from the Class of 2007.
"The first time I met him, he was real straight-forward with me, and that's the one thing I love about coach Weis," Clausen said. "He's going to tell you what's on his mind, whether you want to hear it or don't want to hear it. That's the thing I like.
"We went down to Notre Dame that day, and told me I was his guy, and he was going to recruit me during the whole process. And that's pretty much what happened. He said I was his guy from Day 1. He stuck to his word, showed up at my high school and I was the only guy he offered. That was pretty special, too."
Weis' loyalty to Clausen was severely tested last December. Mitch Mustain, the No. 1 QB prospect from the class of 2006, de-committed from Arkansas, re-opened his recruitment and asked Weis to take him. But Weis refused, saving the spot for Clausen.
"Again, he stuck to his word," Clausen said. "He didn't go with Mitch Mustain because I was his guy and he wanted me."
Weis had previously signed two other QBs from the Class of 2006 -- Zach Frazer of Pennsylvania and Demetrius Jones from Chicago -- but they were mostly insurance in case Clausen chose USC. And, for a spell, the Trojans appeared to be at the top of Clausen's list. He and the USC quarterback Matt Leinart had each grown up with the same quarterback coach, Steve Clarkson, and the Trojan QB coach, Steve Sarkisian, was a longtime acquaintance. When Clausen attended the USC-Notre Dame game in South Bend last fall -- the instant classic decided on Leinart's impromptu QB sneak -- he admits he left the stadium imagining playing against Notre Dame someday.
USC intrigued Clausen at the time because of their overall talent level, and Clausen admits he was uncertain whether Weis could recruit similar athletes to Notre Dame. But, later, the Irish landed two mammoth offensive linemen, 6-foot-8, 305-pound Sam Young of Fort Lauderdale and 6-foot-5, 360-pound Chris Stewart of Klein, Texas. Those kind of recruiting coups eased his concerns.
"That's one thing that I was worried about, 'Can they recruit guys in?' '' Clausen said. "And coach Weis just said, 'I can get guys in.' And, again, I'm trusting him that he's going to stick to his word. He stuck to his word with me the whole time, so I think he'll do the same for that. I want to play with the best athletes, and that's just what I want to do. SC has the best athletes right now in college football, and I want that to change, and I think I'm starting to change that by committing to Notre Dame."
USC recruited Clausen feverishly until the end. He had visited with head coach Pete Carroll as recently as Wednesday, and Leinart called his cell phone, too, but he never wavered. Some of Clausen's critics at USC suspect Clausen chose Notre Dame because the Irish starting QB job will be vacant in 2007, and USC's won't. Highly touted Mark Sanchez is expected to take over for Leinart this coming season.
"That's not a factor at all," Clausen said. "Most people are probably going to think that's a factor, but it's not. I'm the kind of guy who likes to compete, and that's what I'm all about, is competing and getting better and stuff like that. ... So, if Mark Sanchez does play this year and that's the place I wanted to go, I'd go there."
Instead, he insists he made an unemotional "business decision" to attend Notre Dame based on Weis' pedigree. Current Patriots QB Tom Brady has spoken with Clausen, assuring him he won't find a more superior tutor, and Clausen agrees no one can groom him for the NFL like Weis can.
"Yeah, this is a business decision," Clausen said. "My two older brothers did this, and their dreams were to get to the NFL, and their dreams pretty much got shattered. And I think that's what's making me work so hard is to get there, because they didn't get the chance, or opportunity to. I think that's what drives me the most. The NFL is what I want to do, that's how I want to make a living, and after seeing my brothers not get to the NFL, every time I want to stop lifting a weight, it just makes me keep lifting. It drives me a lot.
"If you want to go to the NFL, you've got to want to work. You want to be the best you can be. And that's what I'm striving for. I guess I'm the No. 1 player in the nation this year, and I hope to stay that way, and I'm going to keep working as hard as I can to keep that stature. And once I get into college, I want to be the No. 1 player in college. And hopefully I can get to the next level and become the No. 1 player there.
"And part of getting there is choosing coach Weis. Honestly, I think it pretty much just just came down to coach Weis for me. Any high school quarterback would want to play for coach. There's something about him. He's from New Jersey, so he's got a little swagger to him. Kind of like me."
Tom Friend is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.
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