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Replacing quarterbacks not always easy

Dec 4, 2010, 8:32 PM EDT


When Jimmy Clausen announced that he was forgoing his senior season at Notre Dame, any chance that the Irish offense would keep pace with the 2009 edition left South Bend as well. With the ascension of Dayne Crist to the starting role, coming off major knee surgery and into a completely new offensive system, it was hard to know what kind of team the Irish would produce when Notre Dame had the ball.

We’ll have most of the offseason to critique the eight games Crist played, but a much fairer measuring stick for Crist is comparing him to the quarterbacks that stepped in and took over programs where other star quarterbacks departed for the NFL.

Quarterbacks Sam Bradford, Tim Tebow, Jimmy Clausen and Colt McCoy were the only four quarterbacks taken within the first 100 picks of the NFL Draft. Each quarterback left behind a top-30 college offense and a successor with different levels of experience.

At Oklahoma, Bradford’s senior season was one wrecked by injury. After coming off an incredible Heisman winning season, Bradford lasted only 14 throws in a season opening loss to BYU, knocked out with a shoulder injury that would limit him to only three games for the season. In his place, quarterback Landry Jones filled in admirably, beating teams like Idaho State and Tulsa before losing to Miami and giving the starting job back to Bradford. Thrown back into action against Texas, Jones led the offense the rest of the season, throwing for 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions in conference play before leading the Sooners to a win over Jim Harbaugh’s Stanford squad in the Sun Bowl.

In Florida, Tim Tebow left the keys to Urban Meyer’s offense with heralded recruit John Brantley, who apprenticed for two seasons under Tebow, throwing for 10 touchdowns and only one interception during mop-up time. Brantley had two years under Meyer and company’s tutelage, and his advanced passing skills were expected to add another dimension to a Florida offense that was young but filled with playmakers.

At Texas, Longhorn fans got an early look at the quarterback of the future during last year’s national championship, when Garrett Gilbert filled in for an injured McCoy after the opening drive of the BCS Championship game. Gilbert only completed 15 of his 40 pass attempts against Alabama, but seemed to improve as the nightmarish game went on, leading many to think he was poised for a breakout after throwing 66 times during 2009.

Meanwhile in South Bend, Crist became the unquestioned starting quarterback after Clausen decided to leave for the draft. He only threw 20 times in 2009, having completed two short throws in the opening win against Nevada, filled in briefly against Michigan State when Clausen injured his foot, and then got the most action of his career against Purdue. Ironically, Crist was at his best when he ran a small package of zone-read plays, driving the Irish to two straight touchdowns in the second quarter against the Boilermakers before sputtering and being relieved by Clausen, who rallied the Irish in the end for a victory. Crist’s next action was his last before his season-ending knee injury, completing just two of six throws in mop-up duty against Washington State, though one was a long touchdown pass to wide receiver John Goodman.

Comparing Crist with the situations Jones, Brantley, and Gilbert walked into helps add some much needed context for what should have been expected out of Dayne as a first time starter. In fact, when you look at the work Crist (and as an extension, Rees) did, there’s reason to be impressed with the coaching staff’s ability to prepare their newbie quarterbacks and have great enthusiasm for the future of Notre Dame’s offense as the depth chart continues to develop.

If we’re comparing apples to apples, it’s better to throw Jones either out completely, or compare his work in 2009 to that of Crist’s. Even then, Jones was captaining the ship for an elite team — the 2009 Sooners were a preseason #3 team, and the 2010 edition was voted top ten in both the AP and Coaches Poll this preseason.

Here are Crist’s 2010 numbers for eight games, matched up with Jones’ ’09 stats:

Crist: 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. 59%, 6.9 YPA, 129.34 QB rating.
Jones ’09: 26 touchdowns, 14 interceptions. 58%, 7.1 YPA, 130.83 QB rating.

Jones put up huge chunks of those numbers against a 5-7 Tulsa team and Texas A&M, throwing for 11 TDs and just 3 INTs in those two games. But either way, the numbers are remarkably similar for Jones in 12 games compared to Crist through 8, and it bears mentioning that the ’09 Sooners had four first round draft picks.

Even more interesting is comparing Crist’s season to those had by Brantley and Gilbert, two quarterbacks that also were put in charge of consensus top five teams.

Here’s Crist’s season when compared with those had by the starting quarterbacks at Florida and Texas:

Crist: 15 touchdowns, 7 interceptions. 59%, 6.9 YPA, 129.34 QB rating.
Brantley: 9 touchdowns, 9 interceptions. 61%, 6.4 YPA, 118.79 QB rating.
Gilbert: 10 touchdowns, 17 interceptions. 59% 6.2 YPA, 110.99 QB rating.

Crist’s season, only eight games compared to full seasons for Brantley and Gilbert, is superior to two quarterbacks that were expected to pilot national championship contenders. Crist had far less grooming than either first-time starter, learned a vastly different offense from a new coaching staff while rehabbing a major knee injury, doing it with a team that was unranked at the beginning of the season, approximately 30 or so spots behind the Gators and the Longhorns. When framed this way, there’s plenty of reason to believe that Crist can take a great leap forward next year, with just about his entire offensive line returning and potentially Michael Floyd and Kyle Rudolph.

With Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa taking off the redshirts, Tommy Rees showing he can win football games, and Everett Golson entering the fray, there will be plenty of time to debate next season’s depth chart at quarterback. But Crist’s performance in his opening season at quarterback shouldn’t be discounted, especially when considering his cohorts.

  1. bwein9 - Dec 5, 2010 at 12:09 AM

    Could not agree more Keith. I am a big believer in Dayne Crist and wish things had gone better for him this year. I guarantee you one thing if the defense had played that well earlier in the year he would have gotten a few extra wins. I’m sure there will be some good quarterback competition especially with Hendrix and Golson, but am not convinced Rees is anything more than a game manager/reliable backup. I still think Crist is our guy and with experience in the system he will demonstrate that he deserves his starting job back.

  2. vegasirish - Dec 5, 2010 at 6:07 AM

    Remember KA, in three starts, Tommy Rees did two things Jimmy Clausen never did. Beat a ranked team and beat USC. While I understand that “things were different” in those wins, Tommy Rees held it together and played great football. I expect quite the quarterback controversy come the Spring, but we also have to remember that this is quintessential “next man in” philosophy. Look for Brian Kelly to use Crist and Rees (or even Hendrix) just like he did Collaros and Pike at Cincinnati.

  3. tlndma - Dec 5, 2010 at 8:46 AM

    First off, let’s hope Dayne is healthy by summer (maybe spring?). Then, let’s hope there is great competition for the starter’s job. Having two or three guys who can step in and do the job is a rarity in college football. Some teams don’t even have one dependable option. BK’s track record is he’ll have and he’ll need more than one QB ready to go.

  4. notredamegrad - Dec 5, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    Thanks, Keith, for your analysis – this is a helpful way to look at Dayne’s first season as the starting quarterback. I think he’s the man for the job and look forward to him stepping up again next fall with an improved defense to back things up and a tougher offensive line to give him time to get the ball into the right person’s hands. Tommy Rees held everything together under immense pressure, and credit to him for that – but the real power in those last three games was in our defense. Here’s to wishing Dayne Crist a speedy and happy recovery, and a spring and summer building off of the momentum of this November (and, hopefully, December).

  5. c4evr - Dec 5, 2010 at 11:17 PM

    In Crist’s early outings, he seemed to get rattled easily and a lot of his throws sailed on him. I understand it’s a new system and first game jitters and all, but in some of the TV close ups, he looked a little lost in the scheme. By contrast, Rees always had a purposeful look in his eyes. Perhaps it’s familiarity with the system, but he never seemed rattled by the flow of the game. He manages the game well, plays within his limits, and finds a number of guys on the field. it seemed each week, there was a new target having a career day. Crist may grow into the role – he certainly has the raw talent to take the offense to the next level, if he can stay healthy – but Rees displays an uncanny ability to let the game come to him… even if it takes about 58 minutes of the game like it did at the coliseum. After a horrendous night where he played a hand in all our turnovers, he settled down and braved the bad weather to guide the team to a winning touchdown. Of course, all this is moot if Golson comes in and pulls a Tony Rice.

    • gogolson - Dec 6, 2010 at 9:18 PM

      Golson leads M.B. to SC AAA State Championship (highlights)

  6. olemantj - Dec 6, 2010 at 12:06 AM

    Keith….basic premise is okay. However, you are comparing Dayne to QB’s who face, on a weekly basis, much tougher defenses.

    • tlndma - Dec 6, 2010 at 6:13 AM

      And what defenses might those be? You realize ND played more bowl eligilble teams than any other team ? I suppose your talking about the SEC defenses. This year, your premise is very debatable.

  7. 1historian - Dec 6, 2010 at 9:50 AM

    This is a good problem to have.

    Crist never impressed me as being in charge out there, and we can throw out Rees’ deer-in-the-headlights performance against Michigan because the more he played the better he got – he made mistakes but didn’t give up and things seemed to happen when he was out there. The battle next season could be interesting – Hendrix & Massa, Rees, Montana and Crist, and throw in Golson who may or may not red-shirt.

    I see one of the three present freshmen transferring and Montana will not really be a factor – he just doesn’t have it.

    That leaves 4.

  8. schuey73 - Dec 6, 2010 at 3:30 PM

    What a difference a year makes! A year ago after Coach Kelly was hired and Clausen left, Crist was really the only option, and we didn’t know anything about the three freshmen. Now there could be a real battle for the spot, but I beleive it’s Dayne’s job to lose if he’s healthy. This is a good problem to have.

    I’m not ready to give up on Dayne either though. How quickly we forget the Michigan game. I was there, and when he got hurt all I could remember thinking was we were in HUGE trouble if it was serious. And then he comes back in the second half and promptly leads us back into the game, and we should have won. The TD pass to Rudolph to take the lead was one of the most exciting plays I’ve ever seen, and the stadium was CRAZY. I still think we win that game if Dayne hadn’t got hurt.

    I also believe that real competition at the QB spot will bring out the best of Dayne. He’s only going to get better for it.

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