Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has made it clear to his defensive coaches and players that the red, no-contact jersey being worn this spring by sophomore quarterback Dayne Crist means more than just a stop sign. "You don't come in the same area code as him," says the first-year Fighting Irish coach. "If we want to get this team ready to play this fall, we need Dayne Crist taking snaps."
Crist, who attempted 20 passes in 2009, takes over in South Bend after Jimmy Clausen skipped his senior year for the NFL. To successfully shift from the pro-style offense run by Kelly's predecessor, Charlie Weis, to the spread that Kelly used at Cincinnati, it was imperative that Crist recover from a Nov. 6 surgery on his torn right ACL in time to participate in his first spring practice on March 26. "We may be trying to cheat nature a little bit," says Kelly. "But it's not like he's got a big résumé. He needs all the reps he can get."
Crist is to Notre Dame what John Brantley is to Florida and Garrett Gilbert is to Texas—that is, a highly recruited QB taking over at one of the few programs able to stockpile quality backups. In South Bend, however, the pickings get slim after Crist. Early freshman enrollee Tommy Rees and junior walk-on Nate Montana (Joe's son) are on campus; another freshman, Luke Massa, arrives in the fall. "That's not where you want to be at Notre Dame," says Kelly.
So if you get the sense that the Irish's season hinges on Crist's development, you'd be right. The good news is that, based on his performance this spring, Notre Dame fans should see little drop-off at the position—if any. One of the top three quarterbacks nationally, coming out of Sherman Oaks, Calif., in 2008, the 6'4", 235-pound Crist is a better fit for Kelly's offense than was the pocket-passing Clausen. When healthy, Crist will be mobile enough to execute the zone-read draws and option reads required in the spread, as well as roll out to escape pressure.
Kelly and his staff are also pleased with Crist's ability to throw the deep ball, a skill that will come in handy with field-stretching receiver Michael Floyd. "His arm is comparable to [last year's Cincinnati quarterbacks] Tony Pike's and Zach Collaros's," says offensive coordinator Charley Molnar. "I see the vertical-pass game continuing to be a major part of this offense."
Going through drills during practice last week, Crist showed no ill effects from the surgery. "I'm not yet cutting real hard, doing anything crazy," he said, "but I've been able to take off and run a little bit." Added Molnar, "I'll be frank—I don't even think about his ACL anymore. I'm glad you reminded me."
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After backing up 2007 Heisman winner Tim Tebow for three years, Florida quarterback John Brantley is the obvious choice to start in 2010. But coach Urban Meyer doesn't want to abandon the single wing, short-yardage running plays for which Tebow was so well-suited. Because Brantley is a traditional, drop-back quarterback, Meyer plans to use either freshman Trey Burton or Jordan Reed (currently a tight end) in certain short-yardage situations, much as he used Tebow when he was a freshman backup to Chris Leak. "On third-and-three we know what we want to do, and John probably is not going to do it," Meyer says. In a nod to Tebow's bruising style, coaches did not restrict the 6'3", 203-pound Burton (below) from contact during spring practices. Says Burton, "I wouldn't have it any other way."
LOU CAPOZZOLA (CRIST)
HANDS OFF Crist (10), who underwent ACL surgery, has the confidence—and the protection—of new coach Kelly (below).
LOU CAPOZZOLA (KELLY)
[See caption above]
BOB ROSATO (BURTON)