Crist ready to lead the Irish

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Tim and Karen Crist often heard their son thumping the drywall above his bed, spreading a pattern of dirty dimples under which he dreamed of an opportunity that's now just two weeks away.

"Since I was a kid it's all I remember; sitting there throwing a football at your ceiling at night and waking up your parents," said Notre Dame junior quarterback Dayne Crist, who replaces Jimmy Clausen as the leading man on arguably the college game's brightest-lit stage.

Both Clausen and the 6-foot-4, 235-pound Crist were Southern California prodigies. They went to the same middle school and worked, often alongside one another, with private coach Steve Clarkson. Surprisingly, both chose the Fighting Irish over NFL-feeder USC -- Clausen a year ahead of Crist.

That's where a common thread unravels.

Whereas Clausen rolled into South Bend like it was senior prom, making ridiculous promises of which he came four championship rings and one season short of keeping, Crist, with a presence that immediately earned the respect of his teammates, arrived on campus without braggadocio or any sense of entitlement.

"When Dayne got here he already had a leadership role," said junior tight end Kyle Rudolph, Crist's roommate when the two were freshmen. "Everyone looked up to him even though he wasn't the starter. We've seen it in the weight room, in the classroom and on the practice field for two years. Now that he's in the starting role, everyone else in the country gets to see it as well."

Clausen's perceived lack of leadership ability throughout his three-year career as Irish starting QB was a topic with longer shelf life than canned tuna. The seemingly-programmed, wholesale defense by his teammates often smelled just as fishy.

Perhaps unfairly, a quirky Clausen was judged more by his posture, the way he chewed his lips and fingernails with cameras rolling, his overall disinterest in serving as the squad's media liaison and his faraway eyes when pressed for any kind of insight.

It was his personality, more than anything else, that came under fire. It certainly had nothing to do with his toughness. Clausen gutted out pain in his throwing arm after having a bone spur removed prior to a pressure-packed freshman season. He played through with turf toe as a junior -- an injury that was far more severe than he let on.

His physical gifts were never in question as he exited South Bend as Notre Dame's all-time leader in pass completions per game (19.9) and career completion percentage (.626), while finishing second in nearly every other major statistical category behind Brady Quinn, who had an extra year to fill his impressive Irish resume.

But Clausen's 8,148 yards and 60 touchdowns didn't silence his critics, evidenced by a greased slide down the NFL draft board.

"I think everyone has their own leadership style," said Crist, who takes over having completed just 10 passes. "It's one of those situations where, as the quarterback at Notre Dame, you're always going to get criticized for one thing or another, whether you're playing good or you're playing bad. That's the nature of the position. ... I just try to be myself. It's very clear when a guy's being phony."

It's clear there's nothing contrived about the overwhelming assurance the Irish program has in its sharp, articulate but inexperienced signal-caller -- one expected to scrap most of what he learned under former coach Charlie Weis and quickly adopt Brian Kelly's new spread offense, all the while trying to forget that he's operating on a surgically-repaired knee.

"I think Dayne is a natural leader and the guys really respect him and respond to him," offensive coordinator Charley Molnar said. "He's an honest person. Guys appreciate that. "Dayne is really on a mission."

Crist can really work a room, a quality Kelly can appreciate. Crist has dimpled cheeks and good bone structure, if that's what you're looking for. Still, he has a lot to prove, mostly that his footwork is fast enough to keep Kelly's turbocharged offense moving in the right direction.

"When you cut through it, we're going to be tied to his ability to run our offense," Kelly said in the spring. "He's extremely capable of being what everyone wants the Notre Dame quarterback to be, but he's got no resume. He hasn't played."

With the Sept. 4 season opener against Purdue rapidly approaching, Kelly's faith in his untested QB has only deepened during the last two weeks of fall camp -- a period when Kelly hoped to discover his team's identity.

Ask any Notre Dame player and they'll tell you that the Irish have already found their sound.

"There has to be one voice," Rudolph said, "and I think everyone knows Dayne's that voice."