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Tommy Rees replaces Dayne Crist; Brian Kelly expected to announce starter Tuesday

Joseph Monardo | Monday, September 5, 2011

The quarterback controversy that has been brewing in South Bend since the beginning of last year’s spring practice took yet another twist Saturday, leaving fans, players and even coaches apparently befuddled.

Less than two weeks after Kelly named sophomore Tommy Rees as the backup quarterback behind senior Dayne Crist, Rees was called on to lead the Irish in the second half of their 23-20 loss to South Florida.

“Well, you know, we didn’t expect to have to make this move, obviously, so it’s going to require us to obviously evaluate the quarterback situation and make another decision,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “This was a step back for us as it relates to where we thought we were going.”

In the first half under Crist, the Irish offense was ineffective, as two early drives ended in red-zone turnovers. Crist unleashed a number of errant throws and was hurt by dropped balls, as the Irish were forced to punt three times in the second quarter. Heading into the half down 16-0, the coaching staff decided to make the switch to Rees.

“We didn’t feel like we produced the way we should have,” Kelly said. “It wasn’t a difficult decision to make that it was difficult because it threw us into an area where we weren’t thinking we had to go to.”

The decision came early in the 130-minute halftime, which was prolonged due to severe weather.

“They told us when the coaches came over, and they pulled Dayne and I aside and just let us know,” Rees said. “We just went from there. You guys know how Dayne is. He’s been supportive of me since day one. He was there on the sideline, he was here in the locker room walking me through stuff.”

Most of the Irish players were not aware that a change was made until Rees took command of the huddle early in the second half, but Bulls coach Skip Holtz said he wasn’t surprised to see Rees take the field.

“Was I surprised or shocked?” Holtz said. “No. You’re down 16-0. I certainly understand that mindset to say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something, we’ve got to do something to get a charge out of our football team.'”

Rees seemed to have provided that immediate spark, but interceptions killed the momentum once again for the Irish, one coming on the South Florida four-yard line and another coming in the fourth quarter with Notre Dame trying to pull out the miracle victory. Rees finished the game completing 24 of 34 passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions. Crist, on the other hand, completed only seven of his 15 attempts in the first half, gaining 95 yards and throwing an interception in the end zone.

Moving forward, the Irish have reentered the realm of uncertainty regarding the quarterback position, and nobody seems to have the answer. Kelly did not announce a starter Sunday, and so Crist and Rees will begin the week of practice just like the weeks leading up to this first game.

“Nothing really changes,” Rees said. “Dayne and I both prepare like we are going to be the guy, so not much changes for me. It’s up to the coaches, and I’ll be ready. I’ll prepare like I’m going to play and we’ll see what happens.”

As the rest of the season unfolds, the entire team looks to actively prevent the quarterback battle from interfering with the team’s focus. That process begins, of course, with the two men fighting for the starting job.

“We have no choice,” Rees said. “As the quarterback, you are the leader and you can’t have a distraction take over the team. It’s a long season and we can’t let that get ahold of us.”

Referring to the quarterback play in Saturday’s game, specifically the turnovers in the red zone, Kelly pins most of the blame on himself.

“Poor coaching,” he said. “Didn’t do a good job with our quarterbacks, obviously. That’s my responsibility.”

Notre Dame did not employ either sophomore Andrew Hendrix or freshman Everett Golson at quarterback, whom many Irish fans expected to see in special packages or to provide a change of pace.

Whoever will be under center for Notre Dame’s upcoming game against Michigan, Irish fans hope he will be able to right the ship and lead the team to a rebound victory. As for the rest of the players, they are ready to follow either quarterback in search of a win.

“We don’t care [who starts at quarterback],” senior wide receiver Michael Floyd said. “They’re great quarterbacks, they both know what they are doing. The whole team made mistakes, and we have to go back to the drawing board and make sure we don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Kelly is expected to announce the starting quarterback Tuesday during his weekly press conference.