The two had been locked into competition all the way until Monday. But the general feeling was that it was Crist's job to lose. Irish head coach Brian Kelly announced on Tuesday that Crist had, in fact, won the starting job and that he expects him to start all 13 games for the team (good to see he's assuming a bowl game).
This seems like the right move, especially since Kelly said Crist and Rees played virtually even throughout camp. If the stats didn't differentiate much, then Crist deserved a shot to lead the team into the season for the second straight year.
That's because Crist only lost his job last season because of his second straight season-ending knee injury. Yes, Rees guided the team to a 4-0 record and that can't be discounted. But it's also true that Kelly went to more of a power running game style with Rees at the helm, and the defense improbably took its level of play to new heights for the final third of the season. Who knows how Crist would have fared under those circumstances, instead of having to learn the offense on the fly early in the year with his teammates?
Kelly praised Crist's toughness in coming back from yet another knee surgery, which included a setback caused by an infection after surgery. Crist, Kelly said, didn't play very well in the spring but worked his way back to top form for fall practice.
Crist's leadership qualities have never been questioned. And those, in the end, won him the job more than anything else.
"He's the kind of guy I want to coach," Kelly said. "He's tougher mentally. He handles himself in that leadership position the way I want quarterbacks to handle it."
Crist now understands all the expectations that the demanding Kelly has for his quarterbacks. He's also the veteran here, as a senior who is entering his third year of playing. Rees is just a sophomore, and it's easier to lose the veteran by benching him rather than the younger guy. Not that Crist is the type of person who would mope about things, anyway.
He still has improvements to make in order for Notre Dame to reach its potential. Crist must get better with his accuracy -- his 59 percent completion mark last season is too low for this type of offense -- and make smarter, crisper decisions. But as long as he's healthy, he has more athletic upside than the less mobile Rees, and Kelly said Crist will run and extend plays with his legs because "he can't play any other way."
While Kelly understandably painted this decision as an all-season deal, he knows he has a rare luxury: the guy holding a clipboard still has an undefeated record as a starter. Should Crist prove ineffective, the Rees option remains viable and readily available. The Irish can also mix things up with running quarterbacks Andrew Hendrix and Everett Golson; Kelly has been cagey about how he'll use those two youngsters, but it's a safe bet he's got a plan for one of them.
The best news for Notre Dame is that this quarterback debate has been put to bed, at least until Crist's first interception or misfired throw. The players can now focus on the opener against South Florida knowing who their on-field leader will be. Crist deserves that role for now.
A couple of other news items from Kelly's press conference Tuesday:
Chris Watt has beaten out Andrew Nuss for the starting job at left guard, while Dan Fox has earned the nod at inside linebacker over Carlo Calabrese. Kelly said that both will be 50-50 deals, though, where both players will see time. Fox might have made the biggest jump in leapfrogging Calabrese, who started the first eight games last season before getting hurt.
"Last year, [Fox] was not a guy that liked contact," Kelly said. "He likes contact now. He knows contact is necessary in the zone he plays in."
Kelly said true freshmen DeVaris Daniels, Cam McDaniel, George Atkinson and Troy Niklas would all play this season, on special teams at the very least. McDaniel and Atkinson are backing up Cierre Wood at running back, while Daniels is pushing for time at receiver and Niklas is competing at outside linebacker.
Freshman Kyle Brindza will handle kickoffs this season, taking that job over from David Ruffer.