Crist earns nod as starting Irish QB

Brian Kelly has revealed his choice as the team's starting quarterback.

Though a weekend of Internet speculation and social media hearsay seemed to suggest otherwise, head coach Brian Kelly put a wrap on Notre Dame's August camp with news most Irish followers have anticipated since spring practice concluded:

"Dayne Crist will start for us versus the University of South Florida," Kelly said on Tuesday. "Both of those young men, Dayne and (sophomore) Tommy Rees, had a great battle for the starting position. But Dayne will be our starter and I expect him to be the starter for 13 weeks and we have great confidence in his ability to lead our football team to a championship."

Kelly noted as recently as Friday that the decision could not be made through statistical, objective methods as the pair's performance had been nearly identical throughout camp.

Rather, Kelly and his staff would use the weekend and the team's first day off since camp began on Aug. 6 to finalize a decision regarding the offense's triggerman.

"I think you have to look at the entire year," Kelly said of his subjective thought process. "(Look at) Dayne on a timeline: here's a young man that overcame a serious knee injury to start the season; then suffered another knee injury, a severe knee injury, which required incredible rehab and had an infection that put him back even further.

"He was able to get himself ready for the spring and didn't have a great spring, but fought through that," Kelly continued. "Then to have (a successful) summer and preseason camp, I think puts it in perspective as to where Dayne Crist is this year as opposed to last year: he is a much better football player and a much better quarterback."

Crist started nine games last season though played in just over 7.5 due to a head injury in Week 2 (which he returned from) and the aforementioned season-ending knee injury, tearing his patellar tendon on the opening drive vs. Tulsa in Week 9.

The Irish finished 4-4 with Crist at the helm with the first-year starter throwing 15 touchdown passes and 7 interceptions. Rees, a true freshman last fall, finished the Tulsa contest for Crist, a 28-27 defeat, but broke program freshman records with 334 yards passing and four touchdowns (three interceptions) in defeat. He finished 4-0 as a starter to conclude the season, including a win at rival USC – the first for the Irish program over the Trojans since 2001.

Kelly believes Crist is not only a better quarterback, but the ideal player to lead his improved Irish against a challenging 2011 slate.

"And I would say, frankly and honestly, he's the kind of guy I want to coach," Kelly noted of the affable Crist. "He's tougher mentally. He handles himself in that leadership position the way I want our quarterbacks to handle it.

"I didn't know Dayne very well last year," Kelly continued in reference to his first season at the helm. "I can't tell you I felt the same way about him last year. But I do now."

Rees' 4-0 record, Kelly admitted, did play a small role in the process.

"A little bit, but it still was about his growth and development as a quarterback," Kelly said of his sophomore. "Tommy is a much better quarterback than he was last year. That's why, though it was a difficult decision, it's one I like to make. They're both getting better as a quarterback.

"Tommy had that going for him, being 4-0," Kelly continued. "But it's more that he's a better quarterback, and made great progress, but at this point, Dayne is in that position to be the starter."

The Pieces Fit

Kelly and Crist absorbed criticism from Irish fans when the team's offense struggled early last season. Crist appeared a less-than-ideal fit for Kelly's shotgun spread attack; Kelly, as noted on these pages; seemed intent on forcing square pegs into round holes.

That won't be the case in 2011.

"Tommy and Dayne have an offensive system in place that both can handle and it accentuates what they do," Kelly said when asked if the quarterbacks' styles determined his choice. "The offensive structure and system has morphed toward what they're good at doing. They're both very smart; they're going to manage the game; and they're going to execute.

"This was a very difficult decision but one I was decided to make because I have two very good quarterbacks."

Crist led the Irish in rushing touchdowns last season with four – the low number due largely to injuries and inconsistency among the team's running backs. More agile than Rees, concern exists that a twice injured Crist could struggle with his occasional duties as a runner in Kelly's scheme.

"One thing he did in camp was show great escape-ability after two knee surgeries," Kelly offered. "He moved well and was able to extend plays. That was part of our decision-making process – we couldn't have someone that couldn't extend plays in our offensive system and he was able to do that."

Though Kelly was pleased with Crist's mobility, he's well-aware that his ideal offensive vision: a consistently high-tempo spread attack – won't be realized in 2011.

"This has been work in progress for us to get a good feel of the strengths of our football team," he offered. "Dayne is not able to run fast-paced, Oregon-style offense, but he can run the style that we put in. You're going to fit it toward your quarterback and where you believe your strengths are and this is the process of continuing that."

All hands on deck?

Each of Notre Dame's quartet of quarterbacks possess more than one season of collegiate eligibility. Rees (3), redshirt-freshman Andrew Hendrix (4), true freshman Everett Golson (4/5), and Crist (2) can all return next fall.

It could be a challenge to keep each member of the unit focused on the task at hand.

"It's like any other position, quarterback, linebacker, defensive end: they all know their role and have to be prepared to step in," Kelly said. "As you know, we have a mantra: ‘Next Man In.'

"Tommy Rees will be prepared to step in if he's called on."

(Rees earned the program's inaugural "Next Man In" honor at the team's Awards Presentation last season.)

With Rees slated for backup duty, has Kelly informed Hendrix or Golson who stands at No. 3 on the depth chart entering preparations for the season opener vs. South Florida?

"Not really. All four quarterbacks are prepared to play and we're prepared to play all four of them," he said.

Kelly admitted he erred last September when Crist received inordinate number of reps over backups Rees and since-transferred Nate Montana. Crist was injured in Week Two and the Rees/Montana combo struggled mightily for two quarters prior to Crist's second-half return in a 28-24 loss to Michigan.

"The circumstances of the game will dictate how that unfolds," Kelly said of the No. 3 or No. 4 option. "Dayne will start and if you look at it from a big picture, the younger quarterbacks will be prepared to play if they have to go in there as well."

Kelly offered that both Golson and Hendrix will work with the varsity unit rather than be relegated full-time to the team's demo squads, perhaps alternating in that role to ensure both continue to learn the offense.

Asked if special game day packages are under construction for the quicker underclassmen, Kelly offered, "That's possible."

Subsequently asked, "You're not going to tell us which one, are you?"

Kelly deadpanned. "That's true."

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