Crist reflects on first Kelly QB tag team at Notre Dame and the current one

Eric Hansen
ND Insider
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly talks to QB Tommy Rees (11) as Dayne Crist looks on during the game at Purdue's Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette on Oct. 1, 2011.

Dayne Crist had a front-row seat for Brian Kelly’s first dabbling with the concept of a niche quarterback during the latter’s now 12-season coaching run at Notre Dame.

Not that it was a foreign concept for Kelly.

He had tag-teamed QBs as recently as the 12-0 regular season at Cincinnati in 2009, that was the résumé topper which helped Kelly land the ND job in December of that year.

And Kelly figures to be mixing and matching quarterbacks again Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium — for the second week in a row — when 12th-ranked Notre Dame (2-0) renews its rivalry with Purdue (2-0) after a seven-year hiatus. Kelly will be chasing victory No. 105 — the one that would tie him with coaching legend Knute Rockne atop the Irish all-time victory list — against the team he notched victory No. 1.

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The only thing that could have made Saturday more full-circle was if Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm would have honored the second year of a two-year contract with Bob Diaco, Kelly’s defensive coordinator at Notre Dame from 2010-13 and the man Brohm terminated from the same post with the Boilermakers nine months ago.

Instead, a trio of co-defensive coordinators will deal with the divergent skill sets and experience levels of rotating Notre Dame quarterbacks, freshman Tyler Buchner and presumptive starter, grad senior Jack Coan.

Crist, the starting QB for Kelly in victory No. 1 of 104 to date, will be watching from afar and intrigued to see how the QB tandem evolves.

“This isn’t a situation where you’re playing multiple guys because it’s an indictment of the starter,” said Crist, a financial advisor these days in his native California. “I think this is really more of a function of challenges that we’re having collectively in the running game and in the offensive line, with new guys that don’t have a ton of experience. 

“When I was watching that game with the group I was with, I wasn’t surprised to see Buchner get in the game. The spark that he was able to provide was huge. And, schematically, it’s a great way to kind of supplement a run game that was having a tough time being established. It takes some pressure off the offensive line in some ways.

“I think if you frame it that way, everybody gets on board and is supportive and can play with the same level of confidence versus it being someone being on a short leash because they’re not playing well.”

That wasn’t how the dynamic played out in 2011, though, when Kelly was at times juggling practice reps for four quarterbacks, trying to find the right combination of starter/changeup QB.

So invested was Kelly in the concept, he brought then-ESPN analyst Urban Meyer to South Bend in the spring between seasons 1 and 2 to share his insight on how Meyer made it work with Chris Leak and Tim Tebow at Florida during a Gators national title run under Meyer.

Meyer had cautioned Kelly there was risk of locker room/chemistry issues if he didn’t handle it perfectly and if the team didn’t win enough.

Notre Dame QB Dayne Crist looks to hand off to Armando Allen (5) in Brian Kelly's debut as ND's head coach, a 23-12 win over Purdue at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 4, 2010.

Crist and sophomore Tommy Rees battled through August to determine who topped the depth chart, while sophomore Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson competed to be the changeup QB.

“There were a lot of moving parts and pieces there,” Crist said of the 2011 season. “I think what made that dynamic even more interesting was that it was four very different guys, four very skill sets.

“Just to kind of be a part of it, it was interesting because the call sheets were very different for all four of us. Then it’s on the coaches to get the most out of the guys within their system. And that was always the focus, even when we were all going through it.”

Hendrix eventually grabbed the niche QB role, but didn’t make his college and season debuts until game 6 against Air Force. He finished a 59-33 rout of the Falcons as the game’s leading rusher (111 yards on six carries), and completed all four of his pass attempts for 33 yards.

Crist, meanwhile, had come back from a torn ACL in his right knee on Halloween 2009 to start the first nine games of Kelly’s first season (2010). But in game nine of that year, he suffered a torn patellar tendon in his right knee, and Rees was elevated to the top of the depth chart and went 4-0.

Crist came back from the second surgery to start the 2011 opener, but Kelly switched to Rees at halftime of a season-opening 23-20 loss to USF.

Notre Dame quarterback Andrew Hendrix showcased his running ability in a 59-33 rout of Air Force, Oct. 8, 2011, at Notre Dame Stadium.

By the end of the season Hendrix was no longer a complement to Rees but a challenger for the No. 1 job, as the Irish scored 16, 14 and 14 points in their last three games.

Crist left in December to finish his final year of college eligibility at Kansas, rejoining former Irish coach Charlie Weis there.

Golson then won the starting job over the offseason, with Rees became the niche QB in 2012, as a closer of sorts, as Notre Dame ascended to the No. 1 spot in the polls and earned a spot in the BCS National Championship Game.

Yet Crist’s legacy in fostering the culture that helped put Kelly on the cusp of history Saturday was as profound as it was perhaps understated publicly.

When Kelly predecessor Charlie Weis went 3-9 in 2007 and developed a sort of radioactive personality to go with it, Crist — a five-star recruit and high school senior at the time — was as instrumental as anyone in holding a recruiting class together that turned out to be one of the best of the 2000s.

It was a group that included fellow five-stars Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph, and was inherited by Kelly. Some of those recruits were still around as fifth-year players for the 2012 title chase.

Then in 2011, Crist was impactful again behind the scenes. Less than two weeks after Hendrix’s debut as the niche QB, Kelly made a notable locker room misstep, dividing the players he recruited players from the ones Weis had brought in and suggested that he had to “retrain” the latter.

The angered Weis recruits took to Twitter, and the fissure became public and ugly. Kelly apologized the day before the 4-3 Irish took on Navy that Saturday in game 8. Crist took a leadership role in reunifying the team and helping Kelly move on from that.

All along in 2011, even after his demotion, Crist was a daily shining example of putting the team first in the quarterback room.

“I just remember the biggest thing we had going for us is that it’s a room where we all cared about each other,” Crist recalled. “And that’s the most important thing when you’re spending as much time with one another.

“It’s hard not to develop deep, meaningful relationships and also to be supportive of the guys around you, within your room.”

Even after finishing at Kansas, Crist never stopped rooting for his teammates or loving Notre Dame. He’ll be back on campus, in fact, the weekend of the USC game (Oct. 23) with wife Hilary and 10-month-old son Holden.

“Hilary and I are excited to take Holden back to campus and show him where mom and dad met and were married,” Crist said. “Notre Dame will always hold a special place in my heart. To be able to share that with my son, it’s like a dream come true.”

Notre Dame QB Jack Coan (17) throws the ball during ND’s 32-29 win over Toledo, Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium.

Coan unruffled and undeterred

Irish grad senior quarterback Jack Coan showed up for his post-Tuesday practice meeting with the media with a perpetual smile and without a splint or any protection on his formerly dislocated finger on his right (throwing) hand.

Coan suffered the injury on the play that immediately preceded his game-winning TD pass to tight end Michael Mayer with 69 seconds left in a 32-29 rally past Toledo, Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium.

ND associate trainer Mike Bean popped the finger back into place on the field during a short break in the action.

“It was like a pit crew stop,” Coan said.  

“Mostly it’s back to normal. I thought it was going to be a lot worse, but back to normal.”

Coan said he didn’t know how the dislocation happened until he watched a video of the play.

“I must have hit it on someone – the guy that was coming at me,” he said.

Coan’s body language after the game, walking off the field jubilantly with freshman tag-team partner Tyler Buchner, was matched by his actual language Tuesday evening about how he feels about the QB timeshare.

Coan completed 21-of-33 passes for 239 yards and two TDs, with a pick-6 while playing 62 plays. His rushing total of minus-24 yards on eight carries included six sacks. Buchner, in his college debut, went 3-for-3 passing for 78 yards and a TD. He ran the ball seven times for 68 yards and was on the field for 19 plays.

“He helped us move the ball,” Coan said of Buchner. “He did an unbelievable job running the ball, even the few passes he had, too. I mean, he’s just an amazing playmaker and an amazing quarterback, and he definitely helped us win. I’m so happy he helped us.”

And the spontaneous nature of the rotation of QBs — sometimes even within series — didn’t faze Coan, he said.

“It’s my first time doing it, but honestly it wasn’t that difficult,” Coan said. “I sort of came in and picked up where I left off and just tried to do my job and make the right decisions.”

HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. PURDUE

Who: No. 12 Notre Dame (2-0) vs. Purdue (2-0) 

Kickoff: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EDT 

Where: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend 

TV: NBC 

Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5) 

Line: Notre Dame by 7 1/2 

Follow ND Insider Eric Hansen on Twitter: @EHansenNDI