SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Dayne Crist knew what was ahead when a second knee injury in as many seasons sent him to the surgeon. There was no time to sulk or feel sorry for himself or wonder, “Why me?”
When he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during the 2009 season as a backup quarterback, Crist made it back through arduous rehab, was able to practice in coach Brian Kelly’s first spring a year ago and emerged — as expected — as the No. 1 quarterback at Notre Dame.
Last Oct. 30 against Tulsa, Crist suffered a ruptured patellar tendon in his left knee, creating a here-we-go-again scenario for a QB who had made great strides in a new offense but was still trying to learn its intricacies and avoid mistakes.
Now Crist has put in the long hours again to get this knee ready and is back in spring drills. There’s a brace on that left knee for precautionary reasons and he’s been cleared for everything during practice — except for being hit, of course.
There are two major differences this time around: Kelly’s complex offense is no longer so foreign and Crist has to win the job back in a field of four quarterbacks.
His main competition is Tommy Rees, who replaced him last season and took the Irish on a four-game winning streak to end the season, including a Sun Bowl victory against Miami.
“As a quarterback group we know we are all going to push each other and make each other better,” Crist said Friday. “We understand that and know that.”
And for those who associate animosity with competition, it’s not really that way, Crist says. There is no cutthroat approach.
“If I’m seeing something that Tommy or the other guys might not be seeing, I’m letting them know,” Crist said. “At the end of the day it’s our team, not one person’s team.”
Crist has been asked many times how his first surgery and rehab prepared him for a second, painstaking recovery.
“They are completely different injuries. It’s tough to compare. It really is, but in comparing those rehab processes, I think it definitely helped me from a mental approach to focus and get done what I needed to get done,” he said.
“Nobody knows your body better than you do, so you know when you can push things and you know when you need to kind of back off. Having done it with a little extra experience, you feel more comfortable when you are finally able to go all out.”
Crist can take off from the pocket if needed, but he’s not the mobile runner that some spread offenses can be built around. He’s got a strong arm and completed 59 percent of his passes last season with 15 TDs and seven interceptions. Rees, an early enrollee freshman last season, completed 61 percent with 130 fewer attempts and threw for 12 TDs with eight interceptions.
Also in the mix are Andrew Hendrix, who served as the scout team QB as a freshman a year ago, and early enrollee freshman Everett Golson, a 6-foot, 180-pounder with speed who threw for 151 TDs as a star at Myrtle Beach (S.C.) High.
Kelly would like to have a grasp on who the starter is by the time Notre Dame wraps up drills with its annual spring game April 16. But he realizes that might not happen.
“It’s going to be fun to watch and I’m going to have to reserve judgment on that until we get a better feel,” Kelly said.
“We may be able to say, ‘Hey, this thing is starting to shape up one, two, three four, five or this is taking us through camp.’ I really am not certain on that.”
One thing the Irish have to do, regardless of who the QB is, will be to compensate for the absence of Michael Floyd, who’s caught more TD passes than any player Notre Dame history. Kelly suspended Floyd indefinitely this week after he was arrested on a drunken-driving charge last weekend.
Calling Floyd a good friend, Crist said the team needs to create an atmosphere where incidents like that don’t occur again.
“As players we knew right when it happened it was a big deal and it was something we need to come together and fix,” Crist said.
As for his relationship with his coach, Crist said it has evolved. Kelly was a little hard on his quarterback at times last season, especially during the spring when everything was new for both sides.
“We know each other better. We have a relationship now. We understand each other and we know how to talk to each other and we’re thinking the same way,” Crist said. “It’s much less stress on our relationship than two people who know nothing about each other or the topic at hand.”
Mainly, though, Crist is just glad to be back on the field, saying it made him feel like a little kid again.
He still needs to regain some strength in his leg. And there are new wrinkles to master — the Irish are experimenting with a helmet camera this spring to help the quarterback study his reads — and Kelly’s multidimensional offense is always adding on.
“That time away makes you appreciate what you have while you’re out there,” Crist said. “My time here is limited. I mean, I got two years left — that’s a scary thing to say out loud — so I’m just trying to make the most of every day and just get better.”
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