Commentary

Clausen's growth, leadership key to Irish development

Updated: March 31, 2008, 4:58 PM ET
By Adam Rittenberg | ESPN.com

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Nineteen years of waiting abruptly ended for Mike Haywood in January, along a road in his hometown of Houston.

Haywood was behind the wheel, while his boss, Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis, rode shotgun. As they headed to their next recruiting visit, Weis turned toward his assistant.

"He made a statement to me and I looked at him and I said, 'OK,'" Haywood said. "Then I sped up because we were running late for our next appointment."

At that moment, Weis hit the gas and accelerated Haywood's career, making him the play-caller for Notre Dame's offense. Haywood no longer just held the title of offensive coordinator, but the game-shaping power that normally accompanies it.

After working under big wheels at big programs like LSU, Texas and Notre Dame, Haywood had finally become one.

"You have responsibilities and obligations in the systems that you're in," Haywood said. "And you have to pay your dues."

Haywood's dues-paying lasted nearly two decades. The rest of Notre Dame's players and coaches hope theirs will be confined to one miserable autumn.

The Fighting Irish endured quite possibly the worst season in their decorated history last fall. They had their worst start (1-9), their most losses (9), their longest home losing streak (6) and their first loss to Navy since 1963.

[+] EnlargeCharlie Weis
Matt Cashore/US PresswireCharlie Weis will concentrate on the bigger picture in 2008.

The 3-9 failure spared no one.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen spent the majority of his freshman season pressed between opposing defenders and the turf. A flimsy offensive line repeatedly put him there. Notre Dame's new-look defense had no margin for error and got mixed results. Weis went from favorite son to potential fraud, losing genius status and drawing comparisons to his quick-hooked predecessor, Tyrone Willingham.

As the Irish began spring practice last week, players and coaches were reluctant to recount the past, but they acknowledged that lumps had been taken and better days, hopefully, are ahead.

"Once everybody's paid their dues, something has to pop," running back James Aldridge said. "Something positive, something extremely positive, has to come out of the situation."

Any upswing starts with the head coach and the quarterback, the "two positions at Notre Dame football that are under the most scrutiny," Weis said.

Whether or not yielding the play-calling duties to Haywood pans out, it marks a significant shift for Weis, who built his career as an innovative offensive strategist. He spent his first three seasons at Notre Dame clutching a play sheet and never letting the quarterbacks out of his sight.

But after Notre Dame's offense finished last nationally (242.3 ypg) and didn't score a touchdown until Week 4 last season, Weis decided to step back and look at his team through a wide-angle lens. He's seeking more help, whether it's making Haywood the play-caller, hiring former Georgia Tech defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta or going to Virginia Tech on Tuesday to study special teams from Hokies coach Frank Beamer.

The changes around the program are subtle but telling.

As players broke off into groups for Friday's first practice period, Haywood worked with the offense at midfield while Weis walked over to greet a recruit and his family. In the next period, Weis stood on the back of a blocking sled being thumped by defensive linemen, while Haywood put the running backs through drills.

"It gives me a chance to coach a lot more players," Weis said. "I get to see more. When you don't have to zone in on just one aspect, you can see a bigger picture. It's actually been kind of fun."

[+] EnlargeJimmy Clausen
AP Photo/Tony DingIrish quarterbacks were sacked 58 times in 2007.

Last year was anything but fun for Clausen. He underwent surgery to remove a bone spur from his throwing arm after spring practice, was limited in preseason camp, made his debut in a 33-3 season-opening loss to Georgia Tech, then got tabbed as the starter a week later at Penn State.

Clausen said he finally felt healthy heading into a Week 5 matchup at Purdue. He threw his first career touchdown pass against the Boilermakers but left the game with a hip injury. Porous pass protection hurt Clausen's chances of getting back to full strength, as he was sacked 34 times.

"Jimmy's been through some things," Aldridge said. "Everybody's got to earn their stripes, and he's earned it, plain and simple."

Clausen has Aldridge's full faith heading into his second season as the starter. Getting a team-wide endorsement is the next step.

"I don't know if I have their trust or not," Clausen said.

By the end of spring ball, Weis wants there to be no doubt.

"I talked to him the other day about the big difference between players looking at you and players looking to you," Weis said. "When your offensive players are looking at you, they're not looking at you as a leader. They're just looking at you as a guy who's running the plays. When they're looking to you, now they're counting on you."

Clausen will get every opportunity to win over the team. Unlike the preseason last year, when he split snaps with Demetrius Jones and Evan Sharpley, Clausen is getting the lion's share of reps this spring.

"I'm the quarterback," Clausen said. "When quarterbacks are in the huddle, they pretty much take ownership."

Clausen's growth won't matter without parallel progress from the line, which returns four starters and projected starting center Dan Wenger, who started five games last season. Notre Dame led the nation in sacks allowed (58) and ranked 115th in rushing offense (75.3 ypg), making the line a principal priority this spring and beyond.

Several linemen added weight during the winter. According to Weis, Wenger started last season at 282 pounds and now checks in at 300. Right tackle Sam Young went from 287 at the end of the season to a whopping 330 this spring.

But a bulkier line isn't a better one without cohesion, which was clearly lacking last fall.

"We have a big climb," Weis said. "People sometimes don't understand how important experience is as an offensive lineman. The communication becomes better and guys start looking out for each other."

With nine offensive starters back, Haywood is expected to diversify the playbook after Clausen operated in a restricted system last fall (evidence: He had 17 completions for 84 yards at UCLA). But the Irish still need skill-position depth, and will feature competition at several spots.

Aldridge enters the spring as the No. 1 running back but needs to hold off Armando Allen and 240-pound sophomore Robert Hughes, who rushed for 246 yards in Notre Dame's final two games, both wins.

Wide receiver Duval Kamara set Notre Dame's freshman receptions record (32) and classmate Golden Tate showed big-play potential, but Clausen needs more targets. Another arrives this summer in Michael Floyd, ranked 30th in the ESPN150.

"We're still competing," Aldridge said, "but the team is getting better because we're all doing good things."

An improved offense will allow Weis to better evaluate his defense, which at times played decently last season under extremely unfavorable conditions.

There are several questions up front, with end Trevor Laws graduating and nose tackle Pat Kuntz missing spring ball for personal reasons (Kuntz, who watched Friday's practice, is expected to re-enroll in school this summer and be back for the season). The linebackers should be solid behind senior Maurice Crum and young playmakers Kerry Neal and Brian Smith. Free safety David Bruton leads a secondary that has some depth at cornerback.

Tenuta, known for his aggressive blitzing schemes at Georgia Tech, will try to help second-year coordinator Corwin Brown ramp up a unit that managed only 18 sacks a year ago.

"We'll be flying around a lot more," Brown told reporters.

After a failure to launch last fall, the Irish are itching to take off.

"You've got to pay your dues, you know?" wide receiver David Grimes said. "We all know what happened last year. We've got a bad taste, and we're looking to do something about it."

Like getting payback.

Adam Rittenberg covers college football for ESPN.com. He can be reached at espnritt@gmail.com.