Steve Megargee Rivals.com College Football Staff Writer
SOUTH BEND, Ind. ? After receiving a hearty ovation from a Blue-Gold Game record crowd as soon as he walked onto the field, Jimmy Clausen promptly began his Notre Dame career by handing the ball off to a running back.
That pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day.
The Fighting Irish ran the ball about two-thirds of the time in the Saturday afternoon game that closed spring practice. The four quarterbacks competing for the starting job combined for only 77 passing yards.
Welcome to Notre Dame football in the post-Brady Quinn era.
Sure, the Irish aren't going to run the ball twice as often as they throw it each Saturday this fall. But they'll need to adopt a more physical approach on offense now that the quarterback who rewrote Notre Dame's record book is heading to the NFL.
"One of the main things I wanted to come out here in the spring was establish a toughness on offense that I think we'd started to get away from a little bit," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "That's why I want to see a heavy dose of running."
Notre Dame's offense needs to gain balance in every respect.
Quinn provided such a security blanket that the Irish relied on him to overcome any adversity they faced last fall.
Sometimes it worked. Quinn helped Notre Dame rally from a 17-0 deficit to beat Michigan State and directed a last-minute comeback against UCLA.
Sometimes it didn't. When Notre Dame fell way behind against Southern California and Louisiana State in the final two games of the season, Quinn couldn't bail out the Irish.
"In the last two years, I think too many games we counted on No. 10 winning the game for us," Weis said. "Well, guess what? No. 10 is not here anymore. So we're going to have to learn to play complementary football. That means that the offense, defense and special teams are going to have to learn better how to play off each other to win football games.
"(It's) not just, 'OK, Brady has got the ball. We have a chance of winning.' The mentality has to change.' ''
The Irish don't have much choice.
Quinn set 36 school records during his four years as a starter. The four quarterbacks vying to replace him ? Clausen, sophomores Zach Frazer and Demetrius Jones plus junior Evan Sharpley ? have combined to throw a total of two regular-season passes.
Rivals.com rated Clausen as the nation's top player in the 2007 recruiting class. Frazer and Jones are former four-star prospects.
But it's much too early for the Irish to count on their quarterback ? whoever it is ? to carry them to victory. Sharpley is the only Notre Dame quarterback with varsity experience, which came mainly in mop-up duty last year.
Who's going to throw the ball isn't the only concern. The Irish also don't know who will catch it.
Jeff Samardzija and Rhema McKnight combined for 1,924 receiving yards and 27 touchdown catches as seniors last season. The Irish don't have any current wideouts with more than two touchdown receptions to their credit.
That's why Notre Dame could end up relying more and more on running the ball and throwing short or intermediate passes to tight end John Carlson, an All-America candidate who collected 47 receptions for 634 yards and four touchdowns last year.
"In any game or any season with any team, you have to be able to run the football," Carlson said. "That's important anytime. Even if you have a quarterback who can throw the ball for 400 yards every game, you still need to run the football."
As much as he emphasized the importance of establishing a ground attack, Carlson hesitated to declare that Notre Dame planned to make the switch from a pass-happy offense to a run-oriented approach.
"Honestly, I don't think we really know what our offensive identity is yet," Carlson said. "A lot can happen between now and September 1. You'll know our offensive identity then."
And it's not as though Notre Dame has a wealth of experience at running back.
Darius Walker's surprising decision to enter the NFL Draft after recording consecutive 1,000-yard seasons left the Irish without anyone who has rushed for more than 351 yards in his career.
Notre Dame's recruiting classes in 2004 and 2005 have produced no experienced star power at any of the offensive skill positions.
Running back Junior Jabbie ? a converted defensive back ? is the only offensive player remaining from the 2004 recruiting class. The only four-star prospect left from the 2005 class is wide receiver D.J. Hord, who missed all of last season with a ruptured Achilles tendon.
But the Irish do have an offensive line that returns fifth-year senior center John Sullivan and promising sophomore tackle Sam Young. Junior Asaph Schwapp has come back from a torn anterior cruciate ligament to give Notre Dame one of the nation's most bruising fullbacks. Notre Dame also has fifth-year senior halfback Travis Thomas returning to offense after spending the 2006 season at linebacker.
Thomas leads a backfield that features a pair of promising underclassmen in sophomore James Aldridge ? a former five-star prospect ? and speedy freshman Armando Allen. The Irish also could get a boost from Jabbie, a little-used senior who closed an impressive spring Saturday by rushing for a game-high 87 yards.
No wonder the Irish expect to have an easier time running the ball than throwing it.
"I think it's a different type of offense," Thomas said. "We're probably going to take charge of our game as far as time of possession goes with the type of power running we want to do and play-action and things like that. It's going to be a little different feel this year."
The expectations also are a little different.
Notre Dame entered last season as a legitimate national title contender. The Irish might not even open this year in the Top 25.
Not when a first-year starting quarterback will have to navigate a brutal early schedule that includes trips to Penn State and Michigan in the first three weeks of the season.
Then again, at least one national analyst is forecasting a top-15 finish for the Irish. Of course, he may be a little biased.
"That's the thing about young players," said former Irish coach Lou Holtz, who served as an honorary coach in the Blue-Gold Game. "They mature and step up, and they surprise you. The best way you improve your football team is for everybody on the team to get better. ? I believe this football team will be vastly improved when they report in the fall."
Holtz led Notre Dame to a national championship in its first year without Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown.
He brought the Irish to the brink of a national title five years later after highly touted quarterback Ron Powlus ? now the Irish quarterbacks coach ? suffered a preseason injury that prevented him from playing.
The Irish can only hope Weis has a similar knack for finding a way to replace star players.