Coach Brian Kelly said Saturday the two are pretty much even after one week of camp.
Crist was the starter until sustaining a season-ending knee injury Oct. 30 against Tulsa that required surgery. Rees relieved in that game and led the Irish on a four-game winning streak, including a Sun Bowl victory over Miami, which gave the Irish an 8-5 record in Kelly’s first season.
“They both have done very good things. So right now I would say they are neck-and-neck,” Kelly said.
Rees got a lot of repetitions with the first team Saturday, so he could be more fairly evaluated.
It started off as a four-man derby with Andrew Hendrix and freshman Everett Golson also in the mix, but Kelly said Saturday it was too difficult to get practice repetitions for all four.
Earlier, the coach had said he’d probably pick the starter after 19 practices, which would fall around the third week of August.
“We kind of thought we’d need that second week (to decide),” Kelly said. “It’s still a battle between those two, not that Everett and Andrew haven’t made progress. They just haven’t got as much work.”
Kelly said speed slot receiver Theo Riddick, who was shifted from running back a year ago and became one of the top big-play threat before an ankle injury sidelined him for four games, could be used again in the backfield.
“It’s available to us, whether we need to do it or whether we feel like it has to happen is another thing,” Kelly said. “But we’ll always be prepared if we ever get short-handed that Theo can line up at the running back position.”
Riddick, who caught 40 passes last season, including 10 against Michigan State and nine against Boston College, said he doesn’t miss running back but would be ready if he needed to play at his old position. Cierre Wood and Jonas Gray at 1-2 in the backfield and if they would be injured, the Irish might have to turn to freshmen George Atkinson III or Cam McDaniel.
“There is a whole lot of competition. Each and every day you got to come in and they have to come in with the right mindset to get better,” Riddick said. “And they have. It has definitely improved our team.”
Kelly added that between six and 10 freshmen could play this season for Notre Dame, mostly on special teams.
He noted the special teams contributions last year of then-freshmen Daniel Smith, Bennett Jackson and Austin Collinsworth, and first-year players can make an impact on kick returns and coverage.
“If they can help us win, we are going to play them,” Kelly said.
The speedy Riddick, who returned two kickoffs last season and 37 as a freshman in 2009, would like to help out.
“I definitely want to be on special teams,” he said. “I feel like I can make a huge dent.”
Kelly said reserve offensive lineman Tate Nichols has a dislocated kneecap and won’t be ready for the Sept. 3 opener against South Florida. Senior defensive end Ethan Johnson was ill and missed practice Saturday. Johnson had complained of headaches and underwent a series of tests and is fine, Kelly said.