Amid lost season, Dayne Crist helped Notre Dame recruiting class find staying power

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — It’s like watching a rerun for Dayne Crist, but without the canned laughter.

The former Notre Dame quarterback knows it doesn’t necessarily preclude an eventual cheesy, happy ending — even though the narrative is much darker at the moment.

For Crist, it’s nostalgic in a twisted sort of way — all the mass angst in the Irish football fan base trying to figure out how the preseason top 10-ranked Irish squad’s 2-5 tumble is going to play on the recruiting trail.

“Those guys who are verbally committed in this class are going to have people at every corner trying to talk them into something else,” the now 27-year-old financial advisor said from his home in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

Crist knows all too well, because nine years ago it happened to him, and every other member of a 23-man recruiting class that took a collectively defiant view of the losingest season in Notre Dame history and all the sky-is-falling forecasts for the future that came along with it.

It was an 18-year-old Crist that stirred an unlikely and stunning recruiting counterpunch in 2007 and something he hopes this 2017 recruiting class can reprise.

The current class stands at 18 commitments after a topsy-turvy Tuesday in which four-star Pennsylvania defensive lineman Donovan Jeter left the class but left the door open for a return, hours before four-star California cornerback Elijah Hicks came aboard.

Collectively, it’s rendered as the No. 6 class in the nation at the moment per Rivals, behind Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, LSU and Georgia. Embattled head coach Brian Kelly and staff have been out recruiting during this, ND’s bye week, with an eye toward both retention and adding on.

The 2018 class, with four defensive front-seven players among its six commitments, has even more star power, relatively speaking.

But do they have staying power?

“For our class, it was really about guys buying in,” Crist said. “Notre Dame is such a special place, and it was a really cool feeling to think of the prospect that you could make it even better. To leave a legacy at a place like Notre Dame, in my opinion, is just much more meaningful than in other places around the country.

“It’s how we all felt. We looked at it as an opportunity to go do that and be remembered for the class that stuck together when things got tough.”

To this day, it’s the closest Notre Dame has come to topping the national recruiting rankings on National Signing Day in the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present).

Buoyed by three five-star prospects — Crist, tight end Kyle Rudolph and wide receiver Michael Floyd — seven top 100 Rivals.com prospects and 16 in the Rivals top 250, that Irish class finished second in the team rankings to Alabama.

Perhaps more impressive was how little attrition there was. Omar Hunter, a five-star defensive tackle from Buford, Ga., was the only defector. He flipped to Florida, where he enjoyed moderate success but no All-SEC honors, no draft day phone call and no in-season NFL roster spot.

Those who stayed did endure a coaching change after their sophomore seasons — with Charlie Weis getting the hook after five years and Kelly replacing him. But five of them, in 2012, got to play in a national championship game. And three of them — offensive guard Mike Golic Jr., center Braxston Cave and defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore — were starters that night.

Crist was one of a handful of players from the class who finished their careers as grad transfers at other schools. He reunited with Weis at Kansas in 2012, in fact, but never lost touch with his Irish roots.

“Of course, I watched them, cheered for them and followed them in 2012,” said Crist, who with wife Hilary has already attended two ND games in person this season — at Texas and at home against Nevada.

“There’s not a day since I got to Notre Dame my freshman summer that I wasn’t talking to all those guys daily. That hasn’t changed today. I talk to those guys quite literally every single day. I’m in a group chat, group text message thread with a bunch of them.

“It’s very fortunate that we have that, this bond that hasn’t stopped since the moment I stepped on campus.”

Crist, from Canoga Park, Calif., was the eighth player to commit to ND in the class and did so in April of 2007, before the 3-9 free fall from back-to-back BCS Bowl seasons began to unfold. But once it did, the California high school star was besieged by people who felt he’d be better off in a USC uniform.

“For people who followed my recruitment, they knew USC was my second choice,” Crist said, “so they pushed that option pretty hard. That kept up all the way to signing day, and I never considered it an option.”

Instead, on his own, Crist kept talking to uncommitted prospects like Floyd and running back Jonas Gray each of whom committed in mid-October, two days after USC hung on the Irish what still stands as the second-most-lopsided home loss in school history, 38-0.

The QB also called regularly to check in with the other members of the class, who already had committed.

“It wasn’t really to talk anyone off the ledge,” he said. “It was as simple as just to catch up and see how their game went Friday or give them a hard time and have fun.

“It happened pretty organically. I never felt like I had to force someone to keep them in the class. I think we were all just kind of cut from the same cloth and had bought into all the same things that were important to making the decision to commit there.”

These days Crist teeters between relative anonymity and a folk hero’s welcome when he ventures back onto the Notre Dame campus. History, though, will always have an eye for him.

“He showed what kind of leader he was before he ever got to campus.” CBS Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming said at the time.

“No one likes losing. Nobody,” Crist said. “You’re in the wrong business if that doesn’t bother you on some level. But at the same time, Notre Dame is unique in that you make the decision to go to Notre Dame for all the other reasons that sound cliché to everybody else.

“It’s about football, but also things bigger than football. That message was received consistently throughout our recruiting class. I think that’s what was the galvanizing piece for us. All we could think about was, ‘We can’t wait to get there and turn this around.’ ”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist (10) and wide receiver Michael Floyd (3) were cornerstones of a 2008 recruiting class with both star power and staying power. (Tribune File Photo)