It was Tuesday afternoon in Lawrence, nearly 20 minutes before 5 p.m., and Charlie Weis was barely visible, his old grey sweatshirt obscured by a blocking sled.
For some reason, Weis, KU’s first-year coach, had wanted to take the long-angled view of his latest football project, retreating more than 50 yards away from a mass of players in the north end zone. Rap music blared. A coach barked out instructions. And in the middle of the mass, senior quarterback Dayne Crist began to warm up, moving with a purpose and direction.
This is the new world of Kansas football, more energy, more life, more hope — for now. Here’s Weis, the old coach with the Super Bowl rings and failed stint at Notre Dame, stalking the field in his sweatsuit. And here’s Crist, the former Notre Dame quarterback trying to make up for lost time in one last season in Lawrence.
“I was pretty aware of what I was walking into,” says Crist, who transferred to Kansas in January after graduating from Notre Dame.
On Tuesday afternoon, the new world of Kansas football came together for its seventh practice of the spring. These are hours mostly spent on installing the playbook and helping individual players improve. But this is also Weis’ first opportunity to redefine the football culture in Lawrence. The Jayhawks finished 2-10 last season — a record that might actually make the season sound better than it really was. In the last days of the Turner Gill regime, the program was essentially broken. And this is where Crist comes in. In the future, Weis will hope to build something close to a program. But for now, he’s hoping to fast-track the process with some help from the right arm and mind of an old student.
“He’s not doing anything that I wouldn’t have expected,” Weis says of Crist. “I’ve known him since he was in 11th grade. I’ve known him such a long time. What he has done is exactly what I would have expected.”
Nearly five years ago, Weis showed up to sell Crist on the perfect college experience. Weis was the coach of Notre Dame then, the tradition-rich program built on golden domes. And Crist was the golden-boy quarterback from southern California with the All-American skills.
Those golden visions never came into focus. Weis was fired in 2009, and Crist endured a series of injuries as he was left to fend for himself. Now, the goals are back on.
“He’s the same guy that I met five years ago when he was recruiting me,” Crist says.
Crist will still drop by Weis’ office to talk football, just as he did at Notre Dame, when they sometimes would watch film of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, another Weis student. And this spring, Weis has said he’s counting on Crist to be something more than a quarterback.
“When you’re the offense and you come into the huddle,” Weis says. “He has a presence.”
On most plays, Crist must identify the defense for the offensive line, bark out a playcall that can be three or four sentences long, then deliver a strike down the field. After the play, it’s time to review and teach.
“Anything I asked Dayne,” sophomore running back Tony Pierson says. “He just knows it off the top of his head.”
Crist’s influence has translated off the field as well. When Crist arrived on campus at the beginning of the semester, his main goal was to branch out to every group and clique in the locker room. He started with the offensive line, where video-game sessions became the most common way to break the ice.
“It was a such a unique situation,” Crist says. “That really all you can do is be yourself. And that’s what I tried to be with all the guys.”
For now, the project is still in its infancy. Crist says he sees a team that can be better than 2-10; a team with receivers that stack up with the ones he had in South Bend.
“I think guys have definitely moved past that (losing) culture,” he says.
Weis has seen signs, too. On Saturday, he watched Crist carve up the defense and hit nearly every single throw.
“A man among boys,” Weis says.
Sure, it was a reminder that the KU defense needs work. But it was also an indication that Weis has the right quarterback for this project.
“It isn’t the offense,” Weis says. “It’s really the whole team. If you’re a defensive player and you see that guy on the other side picking you apart, you’re saying we’ve got a chance. If we’re in a game, we’ve got a chance.”