SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Dayne Crist has regained his role as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, surviving a second knee surgery, arduous rehab and a strong challenge from teammate Tommy Rees during a close a competition for one of college football’s marquee positions.
"Obviously incredibly happy to be named the starter, incredibly relieved," Crist said Tuesday, a day after coach Brian Kelly broke the news to him and Rees.
"I can honestly say I think I’ve overcome a lot since I’ve been here," Crist said. "One thing I think he (Kelly) knows about me is that I’m a fighter."
Kelly pointed to Crist’s maturation, ability to navigate through two knee surgeries over the last two years and his overall improvement as a player. He said he expects Crist to be the starter for all 13 games beginning with the Sept. 3 opener against South Florida.
And then Kelly put a little more pressure on Crist, too, in a year where the 16th-ranked Irish are in the AP Top 25 poll for the first time since early November 2009.
"We have great confidence in his ability to lead our football team to a championship," Kelly said.
Crist didn’t play as a freshman in 2008 and then tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the 2009 season as a backup. He made it back through rehab, was able to practice in Kelly’s first spring a year ago and emerged — as expected — as the No. 1 quarterback.
Then, last Oct. 30 against Tulsa, Crist suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee, creating a here-we-go-again scenario for a quarterback who had made great strides in Kelly’s new spread offense but was still trying to learn its intricacies and avoid mistakes.
"Here’s a young man that overcame a serious knee injury to start the season and then suffered another knee injury, a severe knee injury which required incredible rehab, had an infection that put him back ever further," Kelly said.
Crist acknowledged that watching from the sidelines last year after another injury was stressful.
"One of the most difficult times I’ve had to deal with," he said. But he added his family and friends kept his spirits up and told him nothing worth doing is easy.
Crist didn’t have a great spring practice but improved during summer workouts and then again in preseason camp.
"He is a much better football player, he is a much better quarterback. And I would say quite frankly and honestly, he’s the kind of guy I want to coach," Kelly added.
"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. I can’t tell you that I felt the same way about him last year. But I do now."
The 6-foot-4, 235-pound Crist has a stronger arm, but the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Rees has a nice touch and a quick release. The two quickly emerged as the favorites over Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson.
Crist started nine games last year before he was hurt. Rees, then a freshman, led the Irish on a four-game winning streak to close the season, including a Sun Bowl victory over Miami that gave the Irish an 8-5 record.
Crist completed 59 percent of his passes with 15 TD passes and seven interceptions a year ago. He hit 174 of 294 attempts for 2,033 yards. Rees was 100 of 164 (61 percent) for 1,106 yards with 12 TD throws and eight passes intercepted.
Crist said his relationship with Rees is as solid as ever, even after Kelly met with them one-on-one Monday to reveal his decision.
"I said, ‘You know I need you to keep pushing me. I think you’ve honestly made me a better quarterback.’ We talked about our relationship. We’re going to continue to be friends for as long as football takes us and even after football," Crist said.
Kelly said last week that a statistical breakdown between the two was so close it made the decision even harder to make and he would have to use some subjective criteria.
"They are both smart and are going to manage the game and execute. I don’t know that one does something better than the other," Kelly said Tuesday. "I’ve said all along this is a very difficult decision, but one I’m excited to make because you know you’ve got two very good quarterbacks."
Rees, reared in a football family, has also showed great improvement from last season but not enough to beat out Crist.
"Tommy had that going for him, being 4-0 as a starter, but it’s more about he’s a better quarterback and made great progress," Kelly said. "Just at this point Dayne is in that position to be the starter."
Rees wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, the first day of classes on campus. Notre Dame gave its players a day off.
"Obviously the guy who doesn’t get the starting nod is disappointed and I wouldn’t have wanted a response any other way than disappointment," Kelly said. "Tommy knows what he is capable of doing."
Kelly said he hadn’t broken down who is third- or fourth team between Hendrix and Golson but said all four quarterbacks would be prepared to play.
Crist said his relationship with Kelly has grown and continues to evolve. Last season, in their first year together, Kelly didn’t hesitate to give Crist an earful. Now there’s more of an understanding on how the other person reacts and thinks.
"It was overwhelming last year. We didn’t know what to expect, a new coaching staff, my first real year of starting and things like that," Crist said. "I was inexperienced and I’ll admit that. But now coming back, I’m a different person, I’m a different player. I’m more mature and my game is more mature."
Kelly also announced that Chris Watt would start at left guard over Andrew Nuss, Dan Fox got the nod over Carlo Calabrese at inside linebacker and Jamoris Slaughter had the edge over Zeke Motta at safety.