The Three Rs

Dayne Crist's continuing education is the key to a resurgent second half of 2010.

In grammar school, we all learned the three R's: Reading, Writing and Arithmetic.

The learning curve involved with those three R's was different for everyone, with each category becoming a bit more complex in high school. By our college years, at least one of the three likely troubled 95 percent of the people reading this column. (Actually maybe not this column but columns on other, less-informed sites.)

And for those of us that struggled with one aspect of that educational development at some point in our academic careers: Welcome to the world of Dayne Crist – spread quarterback, Year One.

"In our teaching, it's always about recognition, reaction and response with the quarterbacks," Kelly said Sunday of Crist's new alliterative learning challenge. "Recognition of the defense forces a reaction that, hopefully, we get a positive response.

"That's the cycle of learning that he's in right now," Kelly noted of Crist, the first-year starter whose 10-touchdown/4-interception start has been excessively panned on a host of Irish message boards.

"It starts with recognition. He recognizes some things very well. Those that he does, we get good reaction and response. The things that he doesn't recognize in the spread, we don't get a great reaction and a poor response."

Crist's accuracy has been a sticking point, both for his head coach and the fan base. 58.2 percent is no longer above the Mendoza Line in the era of bubbles, dumps, dinks and the occasional "downfield" throw that travels more than 15 yards.

The junior has thrice completed 8 consecutive passes over five games this season. He's also bounced balls behind Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph on more than a few occasions and tends to hit a wall at some point each Saturday that results in successive incomplete offerings and resulting three-and-outs for Kelly's still-developing offense.

"This is all about what kind of ball you get from Dayne," Kelly said of the observation that too few pass receptions have resulted in yards-after-the catch for the Irish receiving corps. "Dayne's got to be able to make sure he gets the right location on some balls for them."

That sporadic accuracy has affected early-season star Kyle Rudolph as much as anyone.

"Ball placement from our quarterback is very crucial with the tight end," Kelly noted. "He's usually in tight coverage situations. They (defenses) know where Kyle Rudolph is. You're not going to get Kyle Rudolph working one-on-one coverage without tight coverage on him."

Not Alone

Crist takes the bulk of the blame, which is fair, as he likely receive ample credit when the Irish offense clicks into overdrive over the next 2.5 seasons. He is, however, far from the root of the problem.

"We have coined the phrase, ‘Work in Progress.' That is what we're about," Kelly lamented when asked about a more favorable second half schedule that waits. "We really have to spend most of our time and our thought process on being more consistent. This is really so much about a smaller picture that we really won't have time to think about our (next) opponent.

"We'll be so focused on the things we need to do to get better. We're just so far from being a complete team that we can't even look at it any further than having a good day on Tuesday."

Part of the process can't be accelerated. Last season, a veteran Jimmy Clausen could give a knowing look or nod to the Tate/Floyd/Rudolph triumvirate (throw in Robby Parris as well) and the intended target would know to adjust his route.

Through five games and five career starts, Crist and his weapons have yet to develop that yin to each other's yang.

"That is the level of unconscious competence that we're not at, yet; where it's just habits they have developed over time," Kelly noted of a particular missed read between Crist and Floyd on Saturday. "This is an evolutionary process of getting everybody on the same page…the problem that we have is that we can't consistently do that. We'll have a great run for a dozen to 15 plays, and then we'll have a couple of three-and-outs. That's the evolution.

"When you decide to run the spread, you have to play this game from sideline to sideline. That brings all 11 players into the picture. We're working on getting to identifying all 11. That takes some time. We're living through some of the growing pains."

That pain was eased somewhat by Saturday's less-than-inspiring 60 minutes. The victory might not have been pretty, but it had teeth.

And though winning is everything in the college football regular season, winning the Kelly way is the only way the new head man knows to build a champion.

"For me, winning the right way is playing a lot cleaner on offense. That's not the way I want to play the game."

Irish skill position players have fumbled nine times (losing six) and committed 12 total turnovers through five games.

Hammering it home

Nearly 10 months ago, Kelly offered in an interview that the current crop of Fighting Irish lacked the former: not enough fire, a sense of entitlement, a noticeable lack of a killer instinct.

The Irish have yet to show that step-on-your throat mentality through the first five games of the Kelly era, but it will materialize. If not, there'll be sideline hell to pay.

"I have not changed the way I believe you develop mental and physical toughness. You demand it," Kelly said Sunday. "You make sure that the players understand what you're demanding. In every situation when I am talking to a player, I am clearly articulating why I am talking to him about a particular situation."

Kelly often demands it on camera. Saturday he publicly dressed down Dayne Crist, left guard Chris Stewart, punter Ben Turk and kicker David Ruffer (after a kick-off…I'm not sure what you say to a guy that's hit 13 of 13 career field goals). There were likely others we didn't see…several.

Some Irish fans yearned for this new in-your-face-style of their head coach while others see a screamer and sympathize (maybe empathize) with the players.
(Note: This wouldn't be debated if the Irish were 5-0…)

Regardless, both camps have no choice but to get used to it.

"You're demanding that intensity, that mental and physical toughness that our team has quite frankly lacked," Kelly continued. "And that's what we're building. Job one is physical and mental toughness with this football team. The big picture is this team needs to continue to develop its physical and mental toughness."

Saturday in Boston, road win No. 1 in more than a calendar year marked step No. 1 in that journey. Top Stories