Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly’s quarterback of choice for his second season at the helm won the award through nine months of rehab, both mental and physical, and more consistent play over the course of nearly 20 practices in August training camp.
His choice to quarterback Notre Dame’s second game of his second season will have earned the nod because of his play in Saturday’s opening loss to South Florida. And unlike the 80,000 Irish in attendance and the rest nationwide, Kelly’s decision wasn’t cut-and-dried as the staff poured over game film Sunday afternoon.
“Sometimes you want to evaluate: was it as bad as you thought or was it better than you thought?” said Kelly of senior Dayne Crist’s opening effort. “Because in the now, you get a sense and feel as the game goes, but sometimes when you take a step back and you look at film, you get a better understanding of maybe it wasn't the quarterback's fault on this play, maybe it was some other factor.”
Plenty of factors contributed to Crist’s scattered first half performance and subsequent benching last Saturday. His offensive teammates played poorly; he played poorly, and neither appeared to recover from an otherwise sterling opening Irish drive that culminated in a 96-yard touchdown return by South Florida.
“So it won't be as much as what they do on the practice field; it'll be a decision based upon what we saw on film and who we think is the best quarterback right now moving forward.”
Staked to a 16-0 deficit and surreal two-hour halftime, backup Tommy Rees ripped off 296 passing yards, two touchdowns, and two interceptions under 30 minutes of high-pressure football.
“Tommy goes in there, and the game is not difficult for him,” Kelly said of Rees’ performance in a comeback that fell short. “He's obviously got to get better in a lot of areas, but he doesn't go into the game and appear at any time to be overwhelmed or anxious. We had some guys that were a little anxious in their first game. He doesn't have that. He's always seemed very comfortable running out on the field. It’s always been a strength of his.”
The decision won’t drag. Kelly noted it would be made following a Sunday staff meeting and both players would be informed of their status heading into Monday preparations.
Dayne Crist won the job, purportedly by a slim margin. Second-hand information noted the practice gulf between the two signal callers might be a bit wider than publicly expressed.
So is the one on Saturdays.
In their defense…
South Florida scored one offensive touchdown, totaled 254 yards (the second-lowest total of the 14-game Kelly era in South Bend), and managed just 81 yards on their three other scoring drives – each ending in a field goal rather than debilitating plunge to pay dirt.
Notre Dame’s defense, though imperfect and unspectacular, played well enough to win – well, 12 games, Saturday.
“I really thought that they played pretty strong. If you look at the 23 points, I think we know that 10 of those were a direct result of turnovers,” Kelly said. “Another three was on a short field that we gave up on a punt return. There are some things that we've got to clean up, but they're really specific; they're not far reaching issues. Obviously too many penalties would be the first thing.
“But that's another reason for feeling like if we take care of the football and do the things that are in our character; our defense is going to continue to be there for us.”
There were 12 punts in Saturday’s contest. Few of their dozen outcomes favored the home team.
Such has been the case since Kelly’s first game and, to be accurate, for at least two seasons prior to his arrival.
That needs to change Saturday in Ann Arbor and over the next three months. The chief combatants, however, won’t.
“We're going to start Theo (Riddick) again at that position,” Kelly said of his new punt returner. “Obviously he didn't look great back there; I was probably as nervous as anybody else when the ball went up in the air, but we've got to get him through that. He's capable of doing it; he can track the ball (and) we've got to get him to that next level.
Kelly noted that Riddick, he of the lost muffed punt and a second bobbled fumble (and self-recovery) Saturday, has fared exceptionally well as a punt catcher in practice. The staff used a taxing teaching tool to aid Riddick prior to Saturday, the first punt return of his Irish career.
“The last five practices, he was not allowed to field the punt with both hands,” Kelly offered. “He had one football in one hand, and he had to field it with one hand, and I think he dropped one in five days. So he's capable of doing it. He's got to get over that traffic that's coming down on him and concentrate on catching the ball.”
As for Riddick’s classmate Ben Turk, the junior punter had reportedly shined during practice sessions, just as he did for former head coach Charlie Weis in 2009 and at points last season as well.
Inconsistent game day efforts plagued him in both instances and predictably returned in Saturday’s loss.
“As it relates to Turk, he's got a great leg. He's shown that,” Kelly said. “He's just got to go out and do it in a game. It's nice in practice, but you've got to do it in a game.
"I think it still goes back to how you respond when 81,000 people are out there," Kelly admitted. "Ben has got to get through that. He's our best guy; we see that every day in practice.
"We're at that point now where the guys we have, there's not another guy. You know, they simply have to get better when we get into game situations."