After declaring the quarterback race was too close to call just a little over a week ago, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly named senior Dayne Crist his starting quarterback for the 2011 season after a quarterback battle between Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees that started in spring ball.
“We named a starting quarterback and that will be Dayne Crist,” Kelly said on Tuesday. “He will start for us against the University of South Florida. Both of those young men, Dayne and Tommy Rees, had a great battle for that starting position, but Dayne will be our starter and I expect him to be the starter for 13 weeks. We have great confidence in his ability to lead our team to a championship.”
“He is a much better football player. He is a much better quarterback,” Kelly said of his starting quarterback. “I would say quite frankly and honestly, he’s the kind of guy I want to coach. He’s tougher mentally. He handles himself in that leadership position the way I want our quarterbacks to handle it,” he would add.
That level of comfort with Crist as the starting quarterback didn’t always exist last year according to Kelly. “I didn’t know Dayne very well last year. I can’t tell you that I felt the same way about him last year, but I do now. Subjectively those are things that take time and you have to look at all of those factors when making your decision.”
Part of this new level of comfort with Crist came from the relationship Kelly built with the former five start recruit over the last year and a half and their ability to communicate better. “It allows me to coach Dayne with better communication. We’re on the same page relative to what my expectations of him are. You can say it will allow me to coach him better because we can communicate better. He knows what I want from him and that takes time sometimes.”
With Crist as the starting quarterback, one of the key concerns is the chance of another major injury. Crist has after all suffered two major knee injuries over the last two seasons causing him to miss significant time. Despite his injury history, he will not be limited at all in what he is allowed to do with his legs once he gets onto the field for live action against USF in less than two week.
“He has to. He can’t play any other way,” Kelly said when asked whether or not Crist would be able to let loose with his legs. “He has to play the game the way it comes to him. One of the things he did in camp was show great escapability. After two knee surgeries he moved well, he was able to extend plays, and that was obviously part of the overall decision making process. We couldn’t have someone who couldn’t extend plays in our offensive system.”
That running ability is one of the main physical traits that separates Crist and Tommy Ress – along with arm strength. Crist is not going to be confused with Denard Robinson anytime soon, but he certainly can run the ball effectively when the opportunity exists. People tend to forget that even though Crist missed most, if not all, of five games last year, he still led the team in rushing touchdowns with four.
While Crist has the edge in terms of physical traits – arm strength, size, running ability – Rees held a major edge in one department – wins and losses. Rees was 4-0 as the starter and even though defense played a major role in that record, it was something that had to be considered. According to Kelly, however, Rees’s record down the stretch was not a major factor in his decision process.
“A little bit,” Kelly said when asked about Rees record and how it factored into his decision. “It was still about his growth and development as a quarterback as well. He had things that as a true freshman he had to get better at and he did. Tommy’s a much better quarterback than he was last year. That’s why although it was a difficult decision, it’s one I like to make when you have guys that are developing. They are both getting better as quarterbacks. Tommy had that going for him, being 4-0, but it was more about he was a better quarterback and made great progress. It’s just, at this point, Dayne is in that position to be the starter.
I have been saying all off-season that for Notre Dame to have a truly special season, Crist had to win the starting position heading into the season. Between Rees and him, Crist has the edge in almost every physical category and has the ability to win games that Rees can’t at this point in his career if Kelly is able to coach it out of him. There are areas where Crist struggled last year – most notably accuracy in the short passing game – but in terms of who has the higher ceiling, Crist holds the edge and if Kelly is able to get him to reach anywhere close to that ceiling, the Notre Dame offense could be a force by season’s end.