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Joseph: Crist’s natural talent difference in QB race (Aug. 24)

Allan Joseph | Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Some Irish fans might be thinking this decision was a foregone conclusion. It’s easy to think Dayne Crist was going to be the starter given his experience, physical strength and skill set.

They’re wrong.

Others might be responding to this announcement with a big yawn, arguing that the quarterback doesn’t matter in a Brian Kelly system and that the defense holds the key to a successful season.

They’re wrong too.

Crist was not the presumptive starter, but the fact that he won the job could be the difference between eight wins this fall and 10 — or even more.

This competition was not about which quarterback could throw for 350 yards and four touchdowns a game. Frankly, with this receiving corps, either gunslinger could have put up eye-popping stats, but that’s not the point.

Nor was this battle about which quarterback understood the offense better, or who had better chemistry with his offensive line. Crist and Rees both grasp the complex Kelly schemes, and both are on the same page with their protection. That isn’t going to make the difference on the depth chart.

This wasn’t even about who could most effectively make the basic, simple passes that make up the heart of Kelly’s offense. Both quarterbacks are eminently capable of completing a swing pass to wide receiver Theo Riddick, a standard out route to tight end Tyler Eifert or a quick slant to wide receiver Michael Floyd. These are not the plays that separated Crist and Rees.

This decision is really important only a few times a game — but those are the times that mean the difference between a decent season and a great one. What are those times?

Third-and-10 in the fourth quarter of a tie game in Ann Arbor Sept. 10. Fourth-and-4 at midfield with two minutes left, down one possession to USC. First-and-goal to win at Stanford, with a BCS bowl berth on the line.

These are the situations in which Crist will be called on to make a play. Maybe it’s a pinpoint 12-yard out route across the field to Eifert. Perhaps it’s a rollout “go” route to Floyd. Whatever it is, in those situations, Crist is the guy. He’s got more arm strength, more rapport with his receivers and more innate talent to make a play out of nothing. These times will rarely show up, but when they do, they will be the line between a triumphant win in Michigan Stadium and a heartbreaking loss. Add them up over the course of a season, and it’s the difference between the Holiday Bowl and the Sugar Bowl.

This isn’t to say that Rees couldn’t pull off the plays in those situations. Rees is a very capable quarterback, and if Crist goes down, Notre Dame will have the luxury of being completely confident in its backup quarterback. That is an advantage few teams around the country will have.

Crist, however, has done nothing but improve since last season. It’s been evident every time he steps on the practice field. Whereas last year Crist was uncomfortable in Kelly’s offensive system and struggled to flush out the old Charlie Weis system, this year he knows the playbook like the back of his hand. What’s more, the genuine horse race between Rees and Crist has pushed the senior to get even better mentally and physically. There’s a reason why after Kelly told Crist of his decision, the newly-named starter said to Rees, “I need you to keep pushing me.”

Rees will indeed keep pushing Crist. But when the rubber meets the road, Crist has just a little more raw talent in him. In nearly hopeless situations, he creates just a little more room for hope. And in what was a neck-and-neck race for eight months, that makes all the difference.