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Updated: Aug. 22, 2005, 12:19 PM ET

Quinn, Irish look for magic touch on offenseBy Pat Forde




Notre Dame has had a conga line of fancy-pants quarterbacks in the last 35 years.


Guys who were certified big-name recruits, certified Fighting Irish heroes and/or certified NFL players: Tom Clements. Joe Montana. Blair Kiel. Steve Beuerlein. Tony Rice. Rick Mirer. Ron Powlus. Jarious Jackson.


And yet Notre Dame has been largely lousy at throwing the football in that time.


The school single-season passing record of 252.7 yards per game was set in the Dark Ages of 1970, when Joe Theismann was doing the chucking. Notre Dame was eighth in the national passing yardage statistics that year. Its average since then is 66th. Only once in the last 18 years have the Fighting Irish ranked higher than 49th nationally in passing yards per game, and they haven't finished in the top 25 in that category since 1979.


Which tells you how far behind the times Notre Dame has been offensively. A 35-year-old season passing record is the damning proof.




(AP Photo/Joe Raymond)

Charlie Weis has big plans for Notre Dame's passing attack.While the rest of the nation was learning to fly via dramatic advancements in the passing game, the Irish were sitting tight with their rotary phone/dial-up connection/vinyl album offense. There's nothing wrong with running the ball -- the Irish did win three national titles between 1973-88 -- but one of the biggest reasons for Notre Dame's slide from superpower status in the last 11 years has been stodgy offensive thinking.


Lou Holtz's smashmouth strategy had creaked into obsolescence by his tenure's end in 1996. Successors Bob Davie and Ty Willingham were fired in no small part for failing to successfully modernize the attack over their combined eight years. (Davie's last two teams were 109th and 114th in passing yardage, and Willingham's first two were 91st and 92nd. Might as well run the wishbone at that rate.)


Now, at last, knuckle-dragging Notre Dame appears ready to crawl out of its cave, lay down its club, blink into the light of a new day and join the 21st century offensively.


In Charlie Weis, the Irish have a cutting-edge offensive mind. The former New England Patriots offensive coordinator can be unorthodox from game to game -- Weis said he once called 25 consecutive pass plays against the Pittsburgh Steelers, simply going empty backfield and letting it fly -- yet still strive for bottom-line balance.


"I could care less," Weis responded, when asked whether he wanted a 50-50 run-pass mix. But then he referred to the Patriots' final stats from 2004: 530 called pass plays, 524 called runs.


"We don't go into a game and say we're going to be 50-50," Weis said. "We may run it 50 times and throw it 20 times. We're going to do what works. Pretty simple philosophy."


Pretty simple philosophy, with a pretty simple underpinning: How good is your quarterback? If he's very good, a lot more things are going to work.


Thus we arrive at junior Brady Quinn, a handsome, poised, well-mannered young man who has spent much of his college career running uphill to do a big job in difficult situations.


Quinn wound up starting nine games as a true freshman on a 5-7 team, a thankless task. Last year he had the position to himself, with senior Carlyle Holiday moved to receiver and kick returner and had a productive season (2,586 yards, 17 touchdowns, 10 interceptions, 54.1 percent completion percentage). But his record as a starter is 10-11, which means he's spent more time trying to explain why the offense hasn't worked than accepting congratulations for when it has.


Now, as a third-year starter, the kid from Dublin, Ohio, is experiencing a higher level of hype in '05. It's partly the coach, and partly what surrounds Quinn. All six receivers who had double-digit receptions in 2004 are back. Leading rusher Darius Walker is back. The offensive line is back in full.


"I like the guys we've got on offense," Weis said. "I can't take credit for 'em; they were here when I got here. But I'm glad they're here."


Because they're here, and because Brady Quinn and Tom Brady share good looks, half a name and a virtuoso coach ... suddenly No. 10 is expected by many to throw (and win) like the leading man in the National Football League.


Clearly, that's excessive expectations. Tom Brady was little more than an enigma at the same point in his college career at Michigan.


But if the Weis experience goes as planned, Notre Dame should pass better, score more and eventually win more than in recent years -- which means Quinn has a chance to become Notre Dame's first legit Heisman Trophy candidate at quarterback since Rice finished fourth in the voting in 1988.


Weis likes Quinn's size (6-4, 228). Likes his arm strength. Likes his touch. Likes his intelligence. Likes the fact that his teammates voted him the offensive captain.


"The only thing he lacks at this time is experience in this offense," Weis said.


The jury is out on one other thing with Quinn: The magical, intangible charisma component that separates the good quarterback from the championship quarterback. Are you Ron Powlus or are you Joe Montana? Are you Jake Plummer or are you Tom Brady?


“ If what I've seen in practice translates to the games, he has that potential to have that something special. Brady has shown a lot of that type of ability in practice. You think he has a chance. ”

— Charlie Weis


"We always define it as 'It,'" Weis said. "That special something that the great ones have. It just permeates the guy and spreads like wildfire through everyone in the huddle.


"It's when you look in your teammates' eyes late in a game and say, 'OK, fellas, let's go down and win this thing.' And they believe in you."


So, is 'It' a product of nature or nurture? Can it be coached into a quarterback?


"No, 'It' has to be inherent," Weis said. "The great ones have it already. I don't know where 'It' comes from, but it doesn't come from outside. You can push a guy as far as you can, but you can't put 'It' into him."


Thus the inevitable question in the mind of every Domer: Since Weis has seen perhaps the ultimate 'It' in Tom Brady, does he recognize any of the same traits in Brady Quinn?


"If what I've seen in practice translates to the games, he has that potential to have that something special," Weis said. "Brady has shown a lot of that type of ability in practice. You think he has a chance."


For a quarterback, the switch from Willingham to Weis should be like a surfer moving from Iowa City to Huntington Beach. Suffice to say, Quinn is excited -- but busy. He's in the final stages of assimilating a playbook he says "is definitely a few inches thick."


From Weis on down, most everyone at Notre Dame is purposefully vague about what the new offense will look like and do most of the time. Exploiting the other team's weaknesses and tapping into your own strengths -- that's about as detail-oriented as it gets. But Quinn said the basic premise of the offense is similar to New England's basic premise.


"The onus is put on the quarterback," he said. "You've got to get us in and out of plays and make plays."


Which is OK with Quinn.


"I think every quarterback loves it and thrives off it," he said.


Few players have the opportunity to thrive in a spotlight bigger and brighter than the Notre Dame quarterback. But the surprisingly modest passing standards of that position over the last 35 years show that Brady Quinn has a chance to wake up some serious echoes -- and perhaps to take down an embarrassingly old school record in the process.


Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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