Dayne Crist and Jimmy Clausen celebrate

Notre Dame quarterback Dayne Crist, left, credits former mentor Jimmy Clausen with helping him battle back from his second season-ending injury in the past two years. (Tribune file photo)

SOUTH BEND - In the sea of largely condescending voices that Dayne Crist never could find the volume knob for, one from his past buoyed the Notre Dame quarterback in his darkest moments this offseason.

Jimmy Clausen’s.

“He was just so very positive,” the man fighting to stay Notre Dame’s No. 1 option at QB said of the one who made it look relatively effortless for three years.

“He (Clausen) said, ‘There’s probably a lot of reasons for you to be down, but keep your head up and be confident in what you’re doing. Just continue to prove why you’re there - you’re there for a reason. And just continue to improve and make yourself better out of this experience.’”

The next 13 spring practice sessions will likely reveal whether Crist is actually better than before his second reconstructive knee surgery in two years - the latest, Oct. 31 - or if he just sounds like he is. No matter how that unfolds, he’s certainly different.

Teammates notice a calmer, more confident aura about the 6-foot-4, 235-pound senior-to-be, from Canoga Park, Calif., than when he labored to a 4-5 record as a starter last fall.

Crist attributes the new vibe to immersing himself in film study, rather than pity, following the operation to repair his left patellar tendon.

He studied his own mistakes as diligently as he studied quarterbacks who went on to Hall of Fame careers. He dissected defenses, metabolized offensive nuances, went from being simply a student of the game to a prodigy - at least cerebrally.

“Everyone’s going to look better once you’ve got a great knowledge base and you know where to go,” Crist said of translating his knowledge leap into a statistical one as well.

“You look at quarterbacks all the time who understand what they’re doing - they’re smooth, they’re on point. Accuracy, as much as it’s technical - a lot of it is just knowledge base, so I think that’s all improved since Oct. 31.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, too, is different, especially when it comes to coaching this group of QBs. The kinder, gentler but still demanding second-year coach apparently wasn’t just posturing during the media window earlier this week when he was almost mime-ish.

“I don’t want to jinx it,” Crist laughed when asked about Kelly’s evolution. “But in saying that, he had to be intense with us last year, because - one - we weren’t doing it right, and - two - he didn’t have time to sit there and spoon-feed us.

“It was a different environment. It was a different setting. It’s more a disappointment now if we’re not getting something (rather) than screaming because we don’t know it. He’s got great expectations for us and we have high expectations for ourselves.

“But the other thing is, we know each other better. We understand each other. We know how to talk to one another. We’re thinking the same way.”

Especially when it comes to Crist expecting and embracing a QB competition, rather than a coronation. Sophomore Tommy Rees, 4-0 as a starter after Crist was lost for the season, sophomore Andrew Hendrix and early-enrolling freshman Everett Golson are all getting equal reps during the early stages of spring.

“We’ve all talked about it as a quarterback group,” Crist said. “We all know we’re going to push each other and make each other better. We understand it and know that. People think there’s animosity anytime you label something a competition.

“If I’m seeing something that Tommy or one of the other guys may not be seeing, I’m letting them know. It’s only going to make us better in the end.”

That Crist, for the second year in a row, turned a projected six-month rehab into a 4½-month recovery, gives Kelly every opportunity to reach his goal of having a clear QB pecking order by the time the Irish conclude spring football April 16 with the Blue-Gold Game.

The only thing that separates Crist from truly being 100 percent physically at this point is that his left leg doesn’t have as much strength as his right, a natural and reversible atrophying caused by not being able to push his left leg in the weight room.

“It’s just weak,” he said. “But I’m 100 percent cleared for whatever we’re doing.”