Since Ara Parseghian stepped onto the campus in South Bend to restore a struggling program to glory in 1964, 33 quarterbacks have guided the Notre Dame football program to a victory. On September 4, barring injury, junior signal caller Dayne Crist will attempt to become the 34th as he and the Irish take on the school's second-most frequent opponent, Purdue.
On that opening Saturday, Crist will likewise attempt to become the first Irish quarterback to win his initial start since walk-on Pat Dillingham defeated Stanford on October 5, 2002. Jimmy Clausen, Evan Sharpley, Demetrius Jones, and Brady Quinn have failed since, though at one point, first-time Irish starters secured victories on nine consecutive occasions between 1985 and 1998.
Long-tenured Notre Dame starting QB hold a significant place in Irish lore. With three seasons of eligibility remaining, Crist will need good health, accelerated development, plenty of luck, and a new level of execution from his teammates to join the ranks of the revered…the perceived winners; the rarified air of signal callers such as Tom Clements, Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn – the trio of Notre Dame leaders who finished their careers with the highest number of wins by an Irish starting quarterback (29, see chart below).
That level of success cannot come to fruition for Notre Dame's next starting QB until at least November 2012. Pursuit of that achievement begins with a single step…or at least a series of heavily dissected shuffles. Literally.
Where He's Been"I think it's pretty clear that he's got the skill level," explained head coach Brian Kelly during the spring practice session. "(The key) is footwork. The system we run offensively – his footwork has to marry that. He can't use the footwork of another system and apply it to what this system is. "That's really the tough part right now. He knows all the Xs and Os. That's easy for him. He's really got great football intelligence."
On the first meaningful snap of his Irish career (coincidentally at Purdue), Crist displayed two skills to which casual fans can relate much more readily than that of football intelligence: speed and momentum-driven power.
In a portent of 2010, Crist faked a sprint-option hand-off to a leftward-moving Golden Tate; Crist kept the ball and sprinted down the right sideline, running through and leveling a would-be Boilermakers tackler on the sideline after a 16-yard gain.
"It was great to go out there and get your first hit out of the way, so to speak," Crist said of the play. Crist will be asked to tuck and run and consequently take more out-of-pocket hits than Irish fans are used to witnessing from their signal callers, at least over the last seven seasons (Kelly's Cincinnati offense rolled through five quarterbacks in the 2008 season).
"As he feels more comfortable, he'll be able to slide and extend plays longer," Kelly stated in his final evaluation of Crist following 15 spring practices including the annual Blue Gold Game. "That's what we'll look for in his development, extending plays."
The SuccessorGone one year early is three-season starter Jimmy Clausen. Gone too is what Kelly perceived as the era of entitlement – curious as that may be for a program that lost more than it won over a three-year span and enjoyed but a single helping of Holiday scraps at the post-season table.
"He definitely addressed it," Crist said of Kelly's suggestion that the Irish football players need worry more about what they can do for Notre Dame rather than their potential NFL prospects.
"It's more that he's changing our mindset to be ‘us-centered' as opposed to ‘me-centered.' At the end of the day we're here to win a national championship. Whatever comes after college is a by-product of what you do here. And once you lose sight of that, you have zero chance of being successful."
It's convenient for Irish fans to assume the previous era – statistically impressive but bottom-line poor – was fueled by a "me-first" contingent. Crist readily acknowledged the draw of the NFL, but has no use for such generalities.
"I think it's person-to-person. It won't affect me," he said of the allure of professional football. "I think its individual personalities. It's important as the leader of the team that you rally guys together and the leaders of the team remember the focus.
"You can ask any guy out here, that (the NFL) has been the dream. That's been the dream since you were a little kid. But all of that is a by-product of what we do here."
Crist, a longtime friend of Clausen (now a Carolina Panther) learned much from his competitor and teammate during their time together.
"He was just such a great mentor to me," Crist offered of his predecessor. "He was always looking out for me and kind of giving me insight on everything. Just being around him and seeing how he operated often on a daily basis and just his preparation and what he did to try and be the best, it was great to have someone like that around."
The offense's new centerpiece has already earned the respect of his teammates albeit in limited field time. Leading, cajoling, and aiding teammates with his already well-publicized work ethic all comes easily to the affable junior.
The 2010 Irish season, however, rests more on Crist's ability to perform – to lead by example.
Crist's 2010 Season OutlookJovial; glib; blunt. Each describes Crist's new offensive coordinator and QB tutor Charley Molnar. (The latter adjective will be one Irish fans likely infer themselves during the staff's Notre Dame tenure.)
"When we line up against Purdue the very best quarterback will step out on the field. We're not married to Dayne Crist being the quarterback," Molnar flatly stated following an early spring practice. "At the end of the day, the best man plays."
Despite a surprisingly strong Blue Gold Game performance by some kid named *Montana, the best man for the job has to date proven to be Crist – impressive in that the 6'4" 235-pound junior navigated spring ball on one healthy knee.
"Certainly I'd like to see a healthy Dayne Crist and then I could make a fair analysis of him," Molnar stated in April. "We would like to see our quarterback run more and he really can't.
"It makes it harder to assess where he is as we go into the opening game," Molnar continued "but I'm promise you, when he's healed and healthy in summer camp we're going to have to bang him around a little bit."
The pre-season banging and inevitable bruising of which Molnar speaks begins tomorrow, and will serve as step number two in the offense's evolution – one that won't be complete for nearly a calendar year.
Molnar mentioned that the squad would be privy to about "60 percent or so" of Kelly's complete offensive package. And that the group would come close to 90 percent by the time the bowl game rolls around next winter.
"And then I would say a year from now they'll get the rest of it, so as we open up the gates in the future the whole book is available to us…there are some things you have to build before you can get there."
Getting in the way of that destination is the unnatural sporting act of thinking rather than reacting. Crist, who tore the ACL in his right knee vs. Washington State on October 31, experienced paralysis by analysis throughout the spring.
"What we want to do, and what Coach Kelly stresses," Molnar said in April, "is we want to get them to the point of ‘unconscious competence' where they're not really thinking.
"We'll get them to that point sooner or later."
Crist and his offensive teammates have the duration of August training camp to reach that plane and chase Win No. 1 of the new era.
Note: Ties are calculated as both a half-win and a half-loss. For example, Hanratty's percentage is derived from 21.5 wins vs. 4.5 losses. The QB's completion of any contest is irrelevant to the records listed above. As well, comeback victories in relief are not included (which also affects some guy named *Montana).
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