Irish future in the hands, knee of Dayne Crist

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The most talked-about right knee in recent Notre Dame history made its fall practice debut wrapped inside a protective brace last week.

But after answering a few standard questions about the state of his leg, quarterback Dayne Crist was ready to put the issue to rest.

"I think we're past that," he said. "I'm worlds ahead of where I was from a confidences standpoint from spring to now. Structurally, physically, strength-wise, it's exceeded everything I wanted."

Crist is not just the heir apparent to Jimmy Clausen but the only real option for the Irish under center to start this season. That looked in jeopardy when he tore his ACL last year against Washington State in San Antonio, and he was limited this spring. But less than a year later, head coach Brian Kelly says the knee "isn't even a topic of conversation anymore."

So now the conversation changes to whether Crist is the guy who can lead Notre Dame back to glory.

He certainly looks the part, as a sturdily-built, 6-foot-4 former five-star recruit. Yet the fact remains that he's never started a game, has thrown only 20 career passes and now must take the reins of first-year coach Kelly's offense, which is highly demanding of its quarterbacks.

"I enjoy the fact that it's a challenge," he said. "I enjoy the fact that there's a lot of responsibility on the quarterback position here. It's something I try to thrive off."

Clausen was dogged by questions about his leadership ability in much of his time in South Bend. That's something Crist won't have to worry about. Crist is known for being actively involved in charity and community work -- he talked a group of 40 players to shave their heads for cancer research this offseason -- and he was nominated for the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team.

"Really what he had, and I didn't need to do a lot, was great innate leadership capabilities," Kelly said. "His parents did a great job there."

What Crist needs more work on is his fundamentals, particularly his footwork and the accuracy of his throws. He has superstar-caliber targets in Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph and just needs make sure he gets them the ball in the right spot for this offense to succeed.

Crist also has more mobility than Clausen and can run the ball. But given the recovery of his knee and the Irish's lack of any experience at all behind him, that's a skill that may need to stay on moth balls for a while.

"I've never coached scared," Kelly said. "We're going to be aggressive on offense. But we've got to be smart with him as well. We probably can't run him 22 to 23 times in a game. If we do, you know, we probably got some issues because he's running around for his life."

Crist is anxious to see what he can do on the field. But he's not too interested in talking about what he needs to do to protect himself from further injury.

"Those are tough things to think about," he said. "I've just got to go out and try to compete the best I can every day, do everything I can to make sure that I'm not the guy letting the team down."