LAWRENCE — When Kansas’ Dayne Crist was in high school, a budding quarterback phenom in Southern California, a rival high school once had the audacity to question his age. Crist was 6 feet 4, 225 pounds, with the body of an NFL starter and an arm that wasn’t far behind. How could he already be so mature, so cool under pressure?
“Our conference thought that he was actually like 21,” says KU senior linebacker Anthony McDonald, one of Crist’s teammates in high school and at Notre Dame.
You hear these stories about Crist all the time, stories about his mature presence, work ethic and general politeness.
“Leadership,” says KU tight end Mike Ragone, another former teammate at Notre Dame.
“There’s nothing he can’t handle,” KU quarterbacks coach Ron Powlus says.
“That’s Dayne,” Weis says.
In less than two months, Dayne Crist will turn 23. He has one season of college football left. Nearly five years after Crist agreed to play for Weis at Notre Dame — and three years after Weis was fired — Crist has been reunited with the coach and system that suited his style of play. In the interim, Crist has dealt with a devastating knee injury in 2010, a benching in 2011, and the decision to leave behind South Bend for Lawrence earlier this year.
“The kid hasn’t had the best few years now,” Weis says. “Just when he was getting ready to be the man (at Notre Dame), the head coach gets canned. … New system. You don’t fit. And it didn’t go so well.
“So now you’re back into the same system that you did fit … with a team … that every one thinks is gonna be crummy.
“It’s a pretty good situation. I mean, how could he lose?”
Crist has made the transition from one of college football’s most storied programs to a school that’s gone to back-to-back bowl games just once in school history. And his one year in Lawrence will, to a degree, test an old theory about the importance of the quarterback in college football. But more than that, this season is about forgetting the past. In four years at Notre Dame, Crist’s will was hardened, his love for football tested. But maybe that’s OK. Crist believes everything happens for a reason, and without the struggles, he wouldn’t be where he is now.
“Love always gets tested,” Crist says, reflecting on his days at Notre Dame. “That’s how you know it’s love.”
Here’s Brady Quinn’s Dayne Crist story: It was nearly four years ago, and Crist was one of the top high school quarterbacks in the country at Notre Dame High School in Sherman Oaks, Calif. He had chosen to attend Notre Dame and play for Weis. And Quinn, now a backup for the Chiefs, was just a few years removed from an accolade-rich career for the Irish, one in which he’d worn the No. 10. So one day, he got a call from Crist.
“He had actually called to wear the No. 10 … and ask for permission,” Quinn says. “Which he didn’t have to do.”
In many ways, it made sense. When Crist signed with Notre Dame, it appeared that he would join a growing lineage of talented quarterbacks that flourished under Weis at Notre Dame. First there was Quinn, and then came the highly touted Jimmy Clausen.
During the recruiting process, Weis had even used Clausen as a carrot to lure Crist to South Bend. When Crist took an unofficial visit after his junior season of high school, Weis had heard that Crist was particularly interested in LSU.
“What?” Weis asked Crist on the visit. “Are you afraid of competing against Clausen?”
Even in a few brief meetings, Weis had learned something. It didn’t take much to motivate Crist.
“Call me out,” Crist says, “or challenge me.”
Last winter, Crist took a visit to Wisconsin. There seemed little reason to return to Notre Dame. In 2010, the year Brian Kelly replaced Weis as coach, Crist threw for 2,033 yards and 15 touchdowns in eight games before suffering a torn patella tendon in his left knee. But last season, Crist was replaced by Tommy Rees as the starter during the season opener.
Crist met with then Badgers quarterback Russell Wilson, another player who had taken advantage of the NCAA’s fifth-year graduate transfer exemption. (The rule: If a player graduates from his first school with eligibility remaining, he can transfer to a new school and play right away if he enrolls in a graduate program that isn’t offered at his first school.) Wilson played four years at North Carolina State before leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl last season. He’s now battling to start for the Seattle Seahawks.
“That was a great guy I could kind of take advice from,” Crist says.
It seemed that Wisconsin would be Crist’s likely destination. Even Weis, then the offensive coordinator at Florida, thought so. But then Weis got the Kansas job and had to get his former quarterback back on the phone.
“That was not an easy one,” Weis says, “because I had to tell him, out of loyalty to him and his family, that there were things that I couldn’t offer him that Wisconsin could.
“I just told him what I could offer him, and, at the end of the day, he wanted what I wanted.”
Last season, KU quarterbacks combined to throw for 15 touchdowns and 12 interceptions while completing 63.5 percent of their passes. The KU offense scored just more than 22 points per game.
The hope, of course, is that Crist can do better.
“You just gotta bloom where you’re planted,” he says.
He was voted a captain last spring, just months after arriving on campus. And earlier this month, Weis could hardly believe his eyes when Crist audibled into a play that hadn’t even been installed yet. Crist had remembered it from Notre Dame, put his teammates in the right spot on the fly, and the play broke for big yardage.
In the coming weeks, Crist will again be tested. Going through a Big 12 schedule at Kansas can be hazardous for even the most experienced quarterbacks. But on that day at practice, Crist looked like a savvy vet — the quarterback Weis wanted all along.
“Look at the upside,” Weis says. “Let’s look at that end of the spectrum.… This could be a wonderful story. And I’d like to be writing it. And not for me, but for him.”