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For starters, Irish need to pick QB Tommy Rees

SOUTH BEND IN - SEPTEMBER 03: Tommy Rees #11 Notre Dame Fighting Irish rolls out look for receiver against University

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 03: Tommy Rees #11 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rolls out to look for a receiver against the University of South Florida Bulls at Notre Dame Stadium on September 3, 2011 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images) R:\Merlin\Getty_Photos\123498676.jpg

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Updated: November 9, 2011 10:50AM

The preseason quarterback competition between Dayne Crist and Tommy Rees was so closely contested that Brian Kelly had to resort to subjective factors before naming Crist the starter.

Two weeks later, the Notre Dame coach appears to have little choice but to reverse his decision for the most difficult-to-quantify factor of all.

There’s something about Tommy: The more pressure he’s under, the more relaxed he seems to be.

There’s no reason to doubt that Crist was the more consistent performer during training camp, if only by a hair. But it’s looking more and more as if Rees’ greatest attribute isn’t always visible during practice. Sometimes it takes bright lights and the glare of national television cameras to identify a trait as obscure as moxie.

An ability to perform under pressure is what Rees once again displayed and it’s not only what his Irish teammates needed most in a 23-20 loss to South Florida on Saturday but what they need most moving forward.

“We would like more guys to be at ease with the game,” Kelly said. “Tommy goes in there and the game is not difficult for him. He obviously has to get better in a lot of areas but he never appears to be overwhelmed or anxious. We had some guys who were a little anxious in their first game. He doesn’t have that. He’s always seems very comfortable running onto the field. It has always been a strength of his.”

South Florida coach Skip Holtz worried about the tradition and pageantry of Notre Dame Stadium impacting how his players performed.

Instead, it was the Irish who were swallowed up by the stage while self-destructing during a deflating, season-opening loss.

After having a winnable opener blow up in his face, Kelly is faced with a early-season schedule that could determine whether his team ends the season participating in a BCS bowl game for the first time since 2006. The first night game at Michigan Stadium awaits. Then it’s back home for 17th-ranked Michigan State before traveling to Pittsburgh.

It’s a season-defining stretch that calls for a steady hand, and that has been what Rees has provided since replacing the injured Crist in the ninth game last season

If he can win four straight games after being forced into the starting lineup as a true freshman, and if he can throw for 296 yards in the second half against South Florida after waiting out the longest halftime in Notre Dame history, imagine what he could do when he has both experience and ample time to prepare.

“Nothing really changes,” Rees said after the game. “Dayne and I both prepare like we’re going to be the guy. It’s up to the coaches. I’ll be ready to go and I’ll prepare like I’m going to play and we’ll see what happens.”

Rees wasn’t perfect. His first interception was one of three Irish turnovers inside South Florida’s 5-yard line, although receiver TJ Jones appeared to have been at least partially at fault. His second came on the first play after storms suspended the game for the second time with 4:37 left in the fourth quarter.

But there’s no doubt that Rees, who completed 24 of 34 passes to Crist’s 7 of 15, was by far the more accurate passer, just as he was last season. That he was so efficient against a South Florida defense that knew the Irish had to pass to get back in the game is also in his favor, as was his ability to get the ball to Notre Dame’s best offensive player. Receiver Michael Floyd (12 receptions, 154 yards) caught 10 passes for 117 yards in the second half.

Not that this decision can be based on statistics any more than the one Kelly made on Aug. 23. Crist was the best man for the job then. Rees looks like the clear choice now.

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