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Football: Dayne Crist becomes a “more resilient man”

Andrew Owens | Thursday, September 1, 2011

When Dayne Crist snaps on his helmet and runs out of the tunnel for Saturday’s season opener, it will not be the first time he has participated in the Irish pregame ritual. But the senior quarterback will have a different feeling now, having battled back from a season-ending knee injury for the second consecutive year to reclaim the role of starting quarterback.

“More than anything, [running out of the tunnel] will have a very gracious feel to it,” Crist said. “I’ll be incredibly thankful for the opportunity to go out there and play again and do everything and do the things I love. After that it’s time to get to work and focus on South Florida.”

The signal-caller began the 2010 season as the starter before sustaining a ruptured patella tendon in the loss to Tulsa on Oct. 30. The team went 4-5 with Crist under center before sophomore quarterback Tommy Rees took over the reins and guided the Irish to a 4-0 finish, at which point many fans were ready to forget about the senior leader.

“It was tough — you couldn’t really worry about those kinds of things,” Crist said. “More than anything it was about getting my body back and just remaining confident in my abilities because I’ve always had a great deal of confidence in what I can do. Really I just try to focus more on what I can do, how I can help this team as opposed to worrying about all the stuff I couldn’t control.

“I just hope [Notre Dame fans] know how much I care and how hard I work to help this team win.”

The coaching staff has raved about Crist’s performance in fall practice, both with his attitude and on-field performance. The experience has affected him in ways that a healthy 2010 could not have, offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said.

“Here’s what the injuries I think did for Dayne — they made him a more resilient man,” Molnar said. “In other words, he’s really been able to bounce. It’s taught him to get off the floor when he’s knocked down maybe in a way that he wouldn’t have if he had remained healthy. It made him appreciate the opportunity he got.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly agreed that Crist has the ideal mindset heading into 2011.

“I would say quite frankly and quite honestly, [Crist] is the kind of guy I want to coach,” Kelly said. “He’s tougher mentally. He handles himself in that leadership position in the way I want our quarterbacks to handle it. We have great confidence in his ability to lead our football team to a championship.”

Neither Kelly nor Crist envision a less mobile version of the senior quarterback in 2011, despite the risk of another injury.

“He has to play the game the way it comes to him,” Kelly said when announcing Crist as the starter Aug. 23. “One of the things he did in camp was show great escapability. After two knee surgeries, he moved well, he was able to extend plays. We couldn’t have somebody that couldn’t extend plays in our offensive system, and he was able to do that.”

Crist said it is not in his nature to hold back on the field because of the past injuries.

“I’m going to play with the same intensity I’ve always played with and that’s the only way I know how to play is with full speed,” he said. “I’m going to do everything I can.”

While Kelly has mentioned “championship” when talking about his quarterback, Crist is focused on the short term and looks at each day as an opportunity to grow in year two under the new system.

“This year it’s about playing with more maturity and having a greater knowledge base of the offense this year,” he said. “I think it’s going to help my game grow, so it’s going to help the offense grow. Understanding the hard work and preparation I do to help my game is going to help our team get better so we’re making sure we’re continuing to do that at all times.”

When the Irish headed into fall camp in Kelly’s inaugural season, anyone and everyone knew the starting quarterback job was Crist’s. This year, he had to beat out freshman Everett Golson and sophomores Andrew Hendrix and Tommy Rees, who had a 4-0 record on his side.

The battle was atypical because of the close bond the senior and Rees share, Crist said.

“I’ve said this before, but we have a brotherly relationship really,” he said. “When he first got here I tried to help him with everything I could help him with and making sure he was comfortable here and now it’s gotten to the point where he came in and played very well and gained some great experience in the games he played in.”

The relationship has evolved from Crist teaching Rees to the two instructing each other.

“It’s great having a guy out there you can really bounce things off,” Crist said. “He sees some things out there I may not have seen and vice versa. We’re trying to help each other get better because we’re both team guys and understand in helping each other get better we’re helping the team get better.”

Crist said he hopes his return from the injuries parallels those of Jason White and Sam Bradford, two Oklahoma quarterbacks who suffered knee injuries and came back to win the Heisman Trophy and, more importantly to Crist, earn berths in the national championship game.

“I think it’s a positive thing and something to aim for and more than anything it instills some confidence that it can be done and has been done before,” he said. “Having that evidence wasn’t the sole thing that was driving me through rehab and things like that but it’s nice seeing those things and having something to shoot for.”

Crist benefits from leading an offense with several offensive weapons that are big-play threats every time they touch the football, such as senior receiver Michael Floyd and junior tight end Tyler Eifert.

“Having the guys we have on offense makes the quarterback’s job a lot easier, so obviously I need to help those guys because those guys have incredible playmaking ability,” Crist said. “I think everybody on this offense has a very aggressive mindset and wants to go out and score a lot of points and that’s the goal of the offense. We’re real excited those guys are back.”

Crist’s effect on the team has improved with an increased vocal leadership and confidence, Molnar said.

“I think he is the same guy,” he said. “He is probably more confident than he has been just knowing that he’s the starter and getting virtually all of his reps right now with the first unit. He’s been even sharper than he was leading into him being announced as the starter.”

For Crist, the motivation has always been the same since he signed with Notre Dame as a five-star quarterback in 2008 and battled through two injuries to reach the point he is at today.

“More than anything, my love for the game, a love of this University and a love for my teammates [motivates me],” he said. “There’s nothing more that I want to do other than play with the rest of the guys on this team and win for this University.”