Wednesday, August 26, 2009

10 is the new...10? | by George

Over the course of the countdown, we will invariably bring up some of the key moments and personalities who will shape the Irish destiny (new coaches, players in new positions, big names who need to fill big expectations) but today we turn it over to a player who, if all goes according to plan, will not have to take one meaningful snap the whole year. But how (and if) he gets on the field will have a dramatic effect on the present and the future of Notre Dame football...

#10 - The Curious Case of Dayne Crist

Charlie Weis is fond of saying one of the biggest lessons college football has taught him is how much of a difference there is between 22-year old seniors and 18-year old freshman. He was speaking to one's ability to mentally handle the rigors of big-time sports (not to mention a boatload of verbal tongue lashings), but I think he also came to grips with the fact that when the playbook is loaded with nuance like his is, it takes a special mind to grasp it all and a special talent to execute it. And there's only so much you can learn about that by a) watching from the sidelines and b) going in only to hand the ball off.

In case you can't tell, I'm zeroing in on the quarterback position here. As far as the starter is concerned, one of the more encouraging things about this Irish team is the upwards-trend of the numbers for Jimmy Clausen. Many of the key "metrics" for the QB position improved between seasons for Jimmy - touchdowns up, completion percentage up, interceptions down, improved decision making, and better overall health due to an offensive line that reduced the # of sacks allowed by over half. Not all was perfect either - Clausen missed throws in key moments, and some of the INTs he did throw were among the most costly plays in the Irish season (think opening drive of the second half against UNC).

Brady Quinn had similar statistical improvement in his sophomore season, which was similarly inconsistent as Clausen was in '08. It was the third year when his ability not only came to fruition but happened to lock in with a system well-suited to his talents. Clausen is traveling on the same trajectory - surprisingly enough, he does not worry me...going into the season. He also has what Brady Quinn never had - a legit potential superstar backing him up. This is what concerns me.

Dayne Crist? The five-star heir to the throne, like Jimmy a SoCal native with moxie to spare and an intense competitive fire? What could possibly be a concern regarding Dayne Crist? Precisely that - as the heir to the throne, the false sense of security that can build with simply "waiting a turn" and languishing on a bench, coming on only for mop-up duty. Crist the competitor (and this is a good thing) will never accept the idea that he's just the number 2 quarterback. Can Weis the coach do enough to make him ready for the inevitable ascension, though? He addressed the role of the backup QB during last week's full-open practice (without directly referring to Crist) with the following:
The one thing that's going to bother me some, if situation presents itself, is when I put him in, I'm going to have to let him throw the ball. Let's say you get an opportunity to play the whole quarter. You can't just sit there and run inside zone on every play. You've got to give him an opportunity to run the offense.
The "bother" portion isn't a referendum on Crist's ability to run the offense, but an acknowledgment on Weis' behalf that quarterback is a deep position for this Irish team and has a huge influence on the overall direction of the program. It doesn't benefit anybody, least of all Crist, to call him in and do the same things David Wolke was doing as Quinn's backup. Put it in this context: Notre Dame has a comfortable 20-point lead with 5 minutes to play in the opener against Nevada, and has just gotten the ball back. Do you send in Crist to run with the second unit and call three two-yard runs before punting? Or do you act like it's a tie game and put the onus on Crist and whoever he's on the field with to move the ball with the precision expected out of Clausen? Let's go with the former and Crist leads a cool 65-yard scoring drive to kill off the rest of the game, completing a nice pass or two along the way. Then the next week against Michigan Jimmy Clausen tries to scramble for extra yards and suffers a torn ACL. Now it's Dayne Crist's show, period. Think having his snaps be treated like meaningful snaps won't be beneficial at a moment like that?

On the hoof, of course, this will not be a burning issue in 2009. The world will be perfect, Clausen will stay very healthy and very effective, and Notre Dame will build insurmountable leads that will provide Weis the opportunities to start the long, developing segue into the Crist era (we have to dream, right?). In two years with Quinn at the helm Weis didn't do this at all, which came back to royally bite him during 2007. The opportunities the team creates for Dayne Crist to play (excluding injury scenarios) and what Weis chooses to do with those opportunities probably won't be the difference in this team winning or losing a game. But it will speak volumes about what kind of team the Irish have.

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