Notre Dame ended the 2010 season on a four-game streak that has fans and pundits alike boosting program expectations for this upcoming fall. The Irish now have a full season learning and implementing Brian Kelly’s philosophy, which should lead to significant strides on both sides of the ball.
Notre Dame returns one of the most experienced squads in the country and is staring a manageable schedule so the bar has been set at competing for a berth in the BCS.
There’s one giant question hovering over everything though: will Tommy Rees or Dayne Crist be the starting quarterback when Notre Dame takes the field against South Florida?
A lot of fans are arguing that Rees should be the starter because of how the team ended the year with him at the helm. I’m here to tell you they’re wrong. If Dayne Crist is healthy enough to go full speed on September 3 then he's the one should get the nod.
Before we go any further, let me say I’m operating under the premise that these are far and away the two most likely starters on opening day. There’s certainly a chance that the pair of talented quarterbacks sitting behind them—Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson—could have outstanding springs and be right in the mix, but odds are pretty slim it’d catapult them to the top of the depth chart for the first contest.
While they have enormous potential for the long term, Brian Kelly has two quarterbacks who have already started multiple games. Smart money says one of them will ultimately be chosen for game one.
Looking strictly at the stat lines from their first years starting, Crist and Rees are actually pretty similar.
Their accuracy was very comparable (Rees 61 percent, Crist 59 percent), yards per pass was almost identical (Crist 6.9, Rees 6.7), and a mere three points separated their final quarterback ratings (Rees 132, Crist 129.3). Tommy did average more touchdowns per game (2.4 to 1.9), but he threw more interceptions per game as well (1.6 to 0.9).
People in the “Tommy Rees Should Start” camp will recite four words as the reason why he deserves the nod over Dayne: Tommy is a winner. He may not have the physical skill set of many elite quarterbacks, but he led the team to a 4-0 record as starter while Crist’s record sits at an ugly 4-5.
To be blunt, that’s a bogus argument.
Tommy Rees did an admirable job after he was thrown into the fire for the final four-plus games of the season, but let’s stop acting as if he was the spark for the win streak (that would be the defense).
He did a nice job managing the game against Utah and Army and played great football for one half against Miami. There were some solid highlights and some undeniably great throws along the way—like the beautiful touch pass to Eifert against Army and the touchdown he threw to Kamara in the corner of the endzone against Utah.
There were also some ugly moments. Of course rough patches are to be expected from a first-time starter, but people seem to have completely block them out since the end result was a win.
Rees was absolutely atrocious against Southern Cal, to the point where one of the best Irish defensive efforts in recent memory was almost wasted. His final stat line does not reflect how shell-shocked he looked in the second half.
During the third quarter nearly every pass was either batted down at the line or delivered to the breadbasket of a player wearing maroon and gold. It was turnovers galore and all in the shadow of Notre Dame’s own goalposts.
The reason for pointing that out isn’t to rag on the kid; it’s to remind people that Joe Montana wasn’t quarterbacking like some seem to think.
For how positively fans view Rees thanks to his winning streak, they pull the exact opposite maneuver when remembering Crist’s season. By no means did Crist have a great season, but he had flashes of brilliance that seem to have been completely forgotten. Unfortunately his final outings—the debacle against Navy and the opening of the Tulsa game—leave a bad taste.
The disaster in the Meadowlands was a clear step backward and the start of the Tulsa game looked equally ugly. The confidence he’d built up over the first month of the season disappeared and he began regressing.
With every incomplete pass he’d look over at the sideline like a dog that knew he did something wrong and was about to get scolded—and every time Brian Kelly was there to fulfill Dayne's prophesy with a scathing expression and an earful of unprintables.
Crist’s season shouldn’t be defined solely by his hiccups. The real story of his first campaign as a starter when you study it was streakiness. When Dayne got in rhythm he had the look of an elite quarterback, one that just needed some experience and time to mature.
Go back to the tape of the Michigan State game and watched how good he was during the third quarter. It was a passing clinic. Crist possesses a rifle arm and for the most part he didn’t make a lot of killer mistakes. If anything he was actually overcautious too frequently—and if you want a first-year starter to be on an extreme of the spectrum you’d rather it be on the side of caution as opposed to recklessness.
The key to Dayne progressing and evolving into a top-level quarterback is figuring out how to eliminate the prolonged cold streaks. His main issue was that he’d hit eight passes in a row and then immediately follow it with six straight incompletions. The offense can’t maintain any sort of momentum if once or twice a game consecutive drives will be sabotaged because Dayne gets out of sync. That’s where the drastic improvement needs to take place—and he still has two full seasons to make it happen.
Tommy Rees is a smart quarterback and an asset to the team, but his ceiling is just not high enough. Physical he’s incapable of making all the throws that would make this offense operate at its peak and the running threat he presents is nearly absolute zero.
I appreciate his contribution last season and I’d love to have him around as a reliable backup that can come in and manage the offense in emergency situations, but that’s it. If he proves me wrong and seizes the starting job never to let go again then I'd be happy as can be. But my gut says there’s a much greater chance he turns out to be Matt Lovecchio: The Remix than a four-year starter at Notre Dame.
Dayne Crist is no slam dunk to be successful. There’s never a guarantee that players are going to maximize their potential and Crist’s propensity to get hurt might completely snuff out his chances to progress to an elite level.
But if his body cooperates and allows him to move forward, learn, and grow into his role as the leader of the offense then he possesses the potential to be great—something Rees does not. That’s the reason why he should—and will—get the starting nod against USF.