Crist the key to revitalizing KU offense

When Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps announced Thursday they would be joining the Kansas football program, it brought immediate stability to the quarterback position for the next three seasons. If Heaps is the future, however, then Crist is the present – and the cornerstone of the rebuilding effort undertaken by Head Coach Charlie Weis.

For Kansas fans, yesterday was, well, a pretty big day.

In fact, that's underselling things a bit. In the span of a few hours, Head Coach Charlie Weis secured commitments from a pair of quarterback transfers - Dayne Crist and Jake Heaps - both of whom were ranked as five-star prospects by Scout.com during their days as prep stars.

It's not that Kansas has never landed quarterbacks of that caliber, it's just that it's been a few decades or so; 31 years to be precise, since Frank Seurer was lured away from Huntington Beach (CA) Edison High by another Kansas legend, John Hadl, to captain the Jayhawks offense.

Seurer, of course, proved to be one of the most prolific quarterbacks in Kansas history. With a monstrous throwing arm, he tallied more than 6,000 yards through the air during his career in Lawrence, Kan. and was named to the All-Big Eight first team in 1983.

But, yeah, it's been a while.

In Crist and Heaps, the future of the quarterback position at Kansas appears to be locked up for the next three seasons. Heaps, a sophomore who played during both of his seasons at BYU, will have to sit out a year but will have two years of eligibility remaining.

His situation is a big reason why this all fits together so perfectly. Thanks to the same exception that allowed Russell Wilson to transfer from North Carolina State and play for Wisconsin this season, Crist will be eligible immediately with one season left on his collegiate clock.

So it's probably more accurate to describe Heaps as the future and Crist as the present.

Now, knowing that, what are the Jayhawks getting in the 6-foot-4, 235-pound signal-caller? What is the book on his brief stint as a starter at Notre Dame under Head Coach Brian Kelly; a stint that last less than nine full games due to a season-ending injury suffered in 2010 and a benching at halftime of the first game of 2011?

As a high school star out of Sherman Oaks (CA) Notre Dame in the Class of 2008, Crist was rated a five-star prospect, the No. 3 quarterback in the country and tops on the West Coast.

Scout.com national recruiting analyst Brandon Huffman covered Crist during his high school days, and said there really wasn't a whole lot he couldn't do on the field.

"When you saw Dayne in high school, he was as close to a sure thing as one gets," Huffman wrote on Phog.net. "Big, mobile, athletic, cannon for an arm."

Many wondered why such a talent would commit to Weis and the University of Notre Dame, just a year after the Fighting Irish landed uber-recruit Jimmy Clausen - but Huffman saw a certain logic in it.

"It did make sense, since it was no surprise that Clausen would be the starter in 2007, when Crist was still in high school," he explained. "Crist would redshirt in 2008 and then be the backup in 2009, giving him the starting job from 2010-2012."

Fate intervened, however. Weis was fired following a disappointing 2009 season, and Kelly was hired to replace him. A new coach suddenly faced Crist, one with a new offense – Kelly favors the spread attack to Weis' pro-style approach – and new expectations.

Crist may have been in his third year as a college football player, but as IrishEyes.com publisher Tim O'Malley noted, he was prepping for his first year as a starter. And everything he'd learned under Weis about playing the position had to be forgotten. New footwork had to be learned, as well as a new release.

He was, in essence, starting from scratch.

In hindsight, to O'Malley's eyes Crist simply never looked fully comfortable in the spread. Despite suffering two season-ending knee injuries in consecutive seasons (2009 and 2010), he maintained his above-average straight line speed but lost some lateral quickness.

That discomfort carried over to the passing offense as well, though he did complete 59-percent of his passes for 2,033 yards in a little more than eight games, and throw 15 touchdown passes.

"He didn't seem entirely accurate in the spread," O'Malley said. "In limited action (as a sophomore), he looked like a pretty accurate, strong-armed guy when he could sit back in the pocket, which is what he'll do under Weis."

Kansas fans are well-familiar with the spread, having seen it used to peak effectiveness during the 2007 and 2008 seasons under former head coach Mark Mangino and offensive coordinator Ed Warriner. Its passing element thrives on quick hitters - screens, quick slants and the like - that afford a high rate of completion and are designed to give athletes room to work in space.

But a Charlie Weis offense is more about taking shots downfield. In 2005, his first season at the helm, the Irish finished the season ranked ninth in total offense nationally, averaging almost 500 yards a game. The passing game soaked up the bulk of those yards, accounting for 342 per contest.

Under Weis' tutelage, Brady Quinn thrived - going from average quarterback to Heisman contender, throwing for almost 4,000 yards and completing more than 60-percent of his passes.

That season, Notre Dame ranked eighth nationally in yards per attempt, at 8.7. In 2011, now utilizing the spread, they currently rank 62nd, with 7.1 yards per attempt.

At Kansas, as long as the Jayhawks offensive line can protect him, Crist will have every opportunity to succeed. Not only does he understand and value the Weis offense after studying under him for the first two seasons of his collegiate career, but it's a system he's physically suited to play with his size, accuracy downfield and powerful arm.

Now that some stability at quarterback has been established, however, questions do remain among the Kansas fanbase as to what, exactly, the Charlie Weis offense will look like on Mount Oread.

The truth is, so much of that is going to depend on personnel. Browsing through his history at Notre Dame, there's no denying the system could justifiably be described as "pass first."

In 2009, Notre Dame ranked 24th nationally in total offense, but the disparity between passing yardage and rushing yardage per game was massive - more than 200 yards. Even in 2005, the offense's best year under Weis, the disparity remained in that range, with 342.3 passing yards and 147.1 rushing yards per game.

Does Kansas have the horses at receiver to run that kind of offense? It's hard to say at this point. Crist is well-suited to it, obviously, and the offensive line should be a position of strength at KU with its collection of experience and talent.

But the receiving corps is an enigma without question. The return of senior Daymond Patterson, who suffered a season-ending injury in the 2011 season opener, will bolster the unit, but the truth is no consistent producers emerged from the pack through the last 10 games.

Freshman JaCorey Shepherd showed promise, but battled injury. D.J. Beshears is explosive with the ball but suffered from inconsistency, and converted quarterback Kale Pick was ultimately not as involved in the offense as many anticipated he would be prior to the season.

Some of the issues can, of course, be attributed to up-and-down quarterback play. No receiver is going to look good if the QB can't get him the ball, and sophomore Jordan Webb struggled mightily most of the way.

However, it's safe to say that talented newcomers would have have an opportunity to see the field immediately at receiver in 2012, and Weis has wasted no time in targeting several on the recruiting trail. Local standout Tre Parmalee, the 2011 Otis Taylor Award winner, recently committed to Kansas, and both South Bend (IN) Washington star Gehrig Dieter and possible USC transfer Brice Butler made official visits to the campus.

But the lack of a dominant passing game doesn't necessarily spell doom for the Kansas offense next season, should that scenario come to pass.

After he was released by Notre Dame, Weis made his way to Kansas City, where he was reunited with former Patriots colleagues Scott Pioli and Romeo Crennel as the offensive coordinator of the Kansas City Chiefs.

During his one season at the controls of the offense, Weis revitalized a Kansas City offense which ranked 25th out of 32 teams in 2009. In 2010, they jumped all the way to 12th – and they did it by establishing the NFL's leading rushing attack.

Realizing the talent he had in Jamaal Charles, arguably the league's best running back, Weis allowed he and veteran Thomas Jones to shoulder the load, which helped put quarterback Matt Cassel in a position to succeed.

"He's the best at adapting to the personnel," said Nick Athan, long-time publisher of WarpaintIllustrated.com. "I don't think there's a guy out there that's any better at looking at a situation and saying 'Okay, what do I have to work with?'"

In Cassel, Weis continued his long-established trend of developing quarterbacks - a trend which began with Tom Brady in New England and continued through Quinn and Clausen in South Bend.

However, it may have been his handling of the other skill position players in Kansas City that impressed him the most, namely the wide receivers.

From a personnel perspective, the Chiefs of 2010 weren't in such a different situation than the Jayhawks of 2012 will be. The only established receiver - Dwayne Bowe - was viewed as a guy full of potential who had yet to figure out how to tap it fully, and the rest of the receiving corps amounted to one, giant question mark.

By the end of the 2010 season, Bowe was a receiver mentioned among the league's elite; a Pro Bowler who finished seventh in the NFL in total receiving yards and first in touchdowns with 15. More than 75-percent of his receptions went for first downs.

His development of Cassel, Athan explained, allowed him to keep the receivers from over-thinking things, and instead worry about getting to a specific spot on the field. Do that, and the rest would take care of itself.

"He would constantly tell Dwayne, 'This is where you need to be,'" Athan said. "'Don't worry, the quarterback will deliver it.'"

There are questions to be answered and issues to be addressed. But if Weis can continue to plug the gaps and bring in a quality staff to assist him, the coming season could bring with it significant signs of the promised turnaround in Lawrence.

"Every single coach will be able to teach," Athan said. "And that's what he did so well with the Chiefs. If guys are open to that, you're going to be in a position where you'll see the KU program move a lot faster than most people think."


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