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Clausen quietly piles up the wins

QB Casey Clausen isn't flashy, but the Vols see him as their leader.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

Casey Clausen isn't exactly hiding in the shadows of his contemporaries and predecessors -- although for all the attention he's getting he might as well be quarterbacking Tennessee State or Tennessee Tech. Or Tennessee Wesleyan, for that matter. Maybe it's because Clausen, Tennessee's junior quarterback, isn't Florida's Rex Grossman or Miami's Ken Dorsey, who rode their own high profiles on high-profile teams to a 2-3 finish in the 2001 Heisman balloting and began this season among the projected elite.

"He's not real flashy. He doesn't jump off the page," Middle Tennessee defensive coordinator Steve Davis said of Clausen, who had a middling kind of day Sept. 7 against the Blue Raiders in the Volunteers' 26-3 victory. "But I know he makes the plays and he wins football games, that's for darn sure."

Maybe it's because Clausen, 22, isn't Tennessee predecessors Peyton Manning or Tee Martin.

"He will never, ever, be Manning or Martin. Never," ESPN football analyst Lee Corso said. "Manning had the name and Martin had the title," the 1998 national championship.

Then Corso backtracked. "I don't think he's coming out early (for the 2003 NFL draft)," he said. "You give him one more year and he could be right up there at the top."

Wide receiver Kelley Washington, who will play Saturday against Florida after missing the first two games with a sprained right knee, called the 6-foot-4, 215-pound Clausen "one of the top three quarterbacks in the country. I just feel Rex Grossman and Ken Dorsey have a lot more exposure. But Casey is definitely the leader of this team. ... I believe he's got to have his own identity and right now when people think of Tennessee they think of the whole team. The leader of this team is Casey; we can only go as far as he can take us."

Randy Sanders, Volunteers offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach, said Tennessee has been spoiled by its run of great quarterbacks, including Andy Kelly and Heath Shuler, through the '90s. Nevertheless, Sanders said Clausen deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with his star predecessors.

"People remember Peyton Manning as a senior," he said. "They don't necessarily remember how he played as a freshman or sophomore, or even as a junior. The comparisons are always of Peyton Manning as a senior or of Tee Martin as a senior, not to those guys at the same point in their careers."

Maybe there's a perception -- not quite justified -- that the Volunteers offense depends less on Clausen than it did on Manning and Martin.

"He's underrated because they've got so many weapons," Corso said. "They have such a great running game and great outside people (receivers). Their quarterback doesn't win a lot of games for them. ... He keeps them from losing. He manufactures a few big plays, but they win with their offensive line, their kicking and their running game."

And maybe Clausen is simply starting out this season on the wrong foot, so to speak, just as he did a year ago when a slow start put him so far back in the early ESPN Heisman Trophy watch that he finished in a 15-way tie for 25th. In other words, he received one vote.

In his first two games of 2001, against Syracuse and Arkansas, he completed 27 of 44 passes for 272 yards, 1 touchdown and 1 interception. This year, in games against Wyoming and Middle Tennessee, he completed 46 of 62 for 501 yards, 2 TDs and 2 interceptions.

And in ESPN's Heisman Watch, a weekly survey of 10 college football analysts, Clausen is 10th with two points (one fourth-place vote). Quarterbacks Dorsey, Byron Leftwich (Marshall), Seneca Wallace (Iowa State), Chris Simms (Texas) and Grossman are ahead of him.

"It's possible Casey's gotten a little lost in the shuffle," Sanders said. "All I'll tell you is that I wouldn't trade him for anyone else out there.

"He may not be one of those big-name-type guys. But he's throwing for something like 74 (completion rate). He leads the league in yards per game passing (250.5). He's off to a pretty good start, especially when you consider he's been playing without our best wide receiver (Washington)."

"I think everyone in the SEC and probably a lot of people know who I am now," Clausen, from Northridge, Calif., said. "I just think expectations are higher here (in Knoxville). If I go out and throw 30 touchdown passes in a season, it's not such a big deal. Obviously, it's a good season, but Peyton threw nearly 40 (36 in 1997). As far as ability goes, I think I match up pretty well with Dorsey, Grossman and the rest of the guys.

"Besides, the Heisman to me isn't a real big deal. Individual awards don't matter much. The idea is to win games. With the schedule we play this year (including top-ranked Miami Nov. 9), if we just go out there and take care of business, we'll be going for championships."

-- Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report.

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