ATHENS – Casey Clausen can see what’s going on at Georgia all the way from his home in Calabasas, Calif. He’s seen this movie before and he knows how it turns out.
The former Tennessee and NFL quarterback has followed the development of Jacob Eason with keen interest. The parallels are many between Eason’s story and his own coming out of Mission Hills, Calif., as a high school senior in 2000. So he can’t help but watch.
Like Eason, Clausen was a five-star quarterback prospect living on the West Coast and getting recruited by pretty much every major program in the country. And like Eason, he was attracted to the idea of playing with the best of the best in the SEC. He signed with Tennessee to much fanfare in 2000, enrolled early and entered preseason camp as the great hope for the Big Orange Nation.
That’s where Eason’s and Clausen’s stories diverge slightly.
“My situation was unique because I developed tendonitis in my shoulder about a week into camp, so I was pretty much out of it right away,” said Clausen, who’s now head coach at Calabasas High. “I had a pretty good spring and I was ready to compete with Joey Mathews and A.J. Suggs. I don’t know where I was in the pecking order to start with but, if I was healthy, I think I might’ve had a chance to start that first game.”
Tennessee’s opener that year was against Southern Miss, which at the time was a well-respected opponent known for its stout defenses. Mathews got the start over Suggs and both played, but neither was impressive as the Volunteers eked out a 19-16 win.
Mathews then injured his knee during the off week after the first game. Coach Phillip Fulmer turned to Suggs, who had prepped at metro Atlanta’s McEachern High, and Suggs would start the next four games against Florida, Louisiana Tech, LSU and Georgia.
But they slowly worked Clausen into the rotation. By the time the Vols left Sanford Stadium with a 2-3 record after a 21-10 loss to Georgia, the clamor to start the hotshot freshman from California was deafening.
Even though it was the third Saturday in October and the next opponent was Alabama, they turned to the freshman.
“I guess the coaches were thinking, ‘we’re struggling, let’s just go with the young freshman,’” Clausen said. “That’s when we started doing some things as a team.”
They sure did. Clausen led Tennessee to a 20-10 victory over the Crimson Tide and went on to win six consecutive to end the regular season. The Vols finished 8-4 after a loss to a powerful Kansas State team in the Cotton Bowl.
“There’s a fine line between this guy is a safe pick versus this guy is the future,” Clausen said. “It comes down to, ‘are we going to be able to beat Georgia and Florida and Alabama with him?’”
Ultimately, that will decide Georgia’s competition, too. The Bulldogs will complete their third week of camp with their second controlled scrimmage of the preseason this Saturday at Sanford Stadium. Head coach Kirby Smart has made no bones about the fact that the performances of the quarterbacks – Eason, senior Greyson Lambert and junior Brice Ramsey – in this particular scrimmage will go a long way to determining which one starts in the Sept. 3 opener against North Carolina.
“We’re obviously going to have make some decisions coming out of it,” Smart said of the scrimmage.
If Georgia chooses to go with Eason, it will have some realities to face. History tells us whenever an SEC team turns to a true freshman quarterback, the overall results usually aren’t that good.
According to research done by CBSSports.com, 15 true freshmen ended up as their team’s starting quarterback in the SEC over the last 20 years. The average record for those teams at the end of the year was 7-6 (4-4 SEC). The average passing stats were 1,464 yards with a 54.4 completion percentage, 10 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
Twice in that span, Georgia went with freshman signal-callers. Quincy Carter started the first game and every game in 1998 while Matthew Stafford started eight games in 2006. In both cases, the Bulldogs out-performed the mean. They went 9-4 behind Stafford and 9-3 behind Carter.
Making Carter’s success even more remarkable was the fact that he didn’t show up until a week into preseason camp. Nevertheless, he beat out four others in a competition that included two veterans in Jon England and Mike Usry and two highly touted underclassmen in Daniel Cobb and Nate Hybl.
“We felt like with the guys we had lost on defense that we were going to need to score points and we felt like Quincy’s athleticism gave us the best chance of the five, though all of them had a lot of good qualities,” said Jim Donnan, who was the Bulldogs’ head coach as well as offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. “We also knew that whoever started would do well against Kent State (in the opener), but we had that big games on the road against South Carolina and LSU and we wanted to be ready for that. So we made the move based on who we thought would give us the best chance to win those games.”
Therein lies the difficulty of the decisions these coaches have to make. They have to weigh a player’s innate talent and play-making ability against their level of knowledge of the offense and the largely unknown qualities of being able to perform in a highly-charged environments while also serving as a leader for older teammates.
It’s something nobody can really be sure about until the players actually experience that atmosphere.
“Quincy was fully capable after three weeks of practice of handling our offense,” Donnan said. “I mean, he knew what to do as far as knowing the system. But executing it, that’s a different story. You can talk about knowing the offense all you want but once you get on the field, you just have to be able to move the team.”
On that point, Clausen and Donnan completely agree. It’s more about moving the football than knowing the offense.
In Clausen’s case, he was better at doing than knowing.
“Even though I had some success, I’ll be straight-forward with you: I didn’t know what I was doing half the time,” he said with a laugh. “That’s just being honest. Looking back on it, all the fans and I’m sure the media and maybe even the coaches were pushing for me, the hot-shot freshman, but if I could do it all over, a redshirt year would have been invaluable. I got away with a lot.”
That’s why having your young quarterback surrounded by a lot of talented players is so important. The Bulldogs know now they’re going to have a well-recovered Nick Chubb back at tailback and some good targets at tight end. Things are less certain at wide receiver and on the offensive line, but overall the offense seem reasonably solid.
Clausen said having good players was his saving grace that first season at Tennessee.
“My true freshman year we had Travis Henry running the ball,” he said. “So when I got into the game, it was pretty simple: Hand the ball off to Travis, let (the opponent) fill the box up eight, nine guys, then throw the ball one-on-one outside to Cedrick Wilson and Donte Stallworth and David Martin. So it was pretty simple for me.”
Whoever’s under center for the Bulldogs, he best be prepared to put some points on the board in the Georgia Dome. Their opponent, Larry Fedora’s North Carolina team, averaged more than 40 points a game a year ago and has almost everybody back from that offense, including 1,400-yard rusher Elijah Hood and four of the top five receivers.
Conversely, the Tar Heels’ defense appears ripe for the taking. They should be significantly improved in year two under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. But they gave up 645 yards rushing to Baylor in the Russell Athletic Bowl and ranked 109th in the nation against the run.
The point being, it might not be the worst defense against which to start a freshman quarterback. Count Clausen among the many eager to find out if the Bulldogs go with Eason.
“I watched the spring game and he looked pretty doggone good to me,” Clausen said of Eason. “Everybody wants the freshmen to go in and play right away, but the truth is you just learn so much from year one to year two. I’m sure fans don’t want to hear that. They want to see Eason out there Game One and the whole deal. But I’ve been there before … and if you go with the freshman, you’ve got to understand there’s going to be two or three plays a game where you’ll be wondering, ‘why’d he do that?’ And the answer is because he was playing high school ball this time last year.”