BOURBON, Ind. — After teammate Miles VonTobel suffered what appeared to be a concussion on a kickoff, Jack Kiser was not having it. He caught the attention of a referee, chided him at midfield and loudly made it known that a flag should have been thrown.
The discussion lasted a couple minutes, yet no one batted an eye. The referee knew Kiser to be Royal Center (Ind.) Pioneer’s star committed to Notre Dame’s 2019 recruiting class. The Panthers (13-0) thumped Triton 66-0 in the quarterfinal and led 42-0 at the time, but head coach Adam Berry had no qualms with Kiser’s gripes.
That’s just Kiser being a vocal leader.
“Around here, we have a lot of the same referee crew,” Berry said. “They know him well. He knows them well. There’s just a mutual respect. They allow him to speak his mind as the leader of this team and as a captain.
“He’s the type of person who does not care what the score is. He does not care what the game is. He’s going to stick up for his teammates.”
Triton learned its lesson. Kiser’s sixth and final touchdown came when he stripped a running back and returned it 59 yards. But Kiser found no solace, muttering to himself about the kickoff following the game.
“Their returner lowered the head, and our guy came in with a heads up tackle and hit him right in the facemask,” Kiser said. “And then, he said a couple words afterwards. They were talking all game. We are a very prideful program, and we do not like that one bit, especially with a scoreboard like that.”
Kiser, Pioneer’s quarterback and free safety, has not suffered a loss since Nov. 26, 2016. That defeat at the hands of Linton-Stockton in the IHSAA Class A state championship also marks the last time Pioneer did not win by at least 20 points. The Panthers own an 838-32 advantage over opponents this season and shut out 10 of them.
Two losses since middle school would make Kiser appear to be a champion of sorts. However, he might be ND’s biggest underdog recruit in the 2019 class. Kiser, a three-star recruit, sits ahead of only one Notre Dame commit — punter Jay Bramblett — in the 247Sports Composite rankings.
Playing in Indiana’s lowest classification, Kiser faces the weakest competition among ND’s 19 verbal pledges. At 6-foot-2, 208 pounds, he’s about 25 pounds undersized for the buck linebacker position.
“I think I’m always going to have a chip on my shoulder,” Kiser said. “That is just who I am. You can see that when I’m playing 7-on-7 with the higher classes. If you can play, you can play. I have that chip on my shoulder, and I don’t even — I don’t care about the 247, whatever that is.”
Projecting Kiser’s outlook is no simple task. A night of 16 rushes for 105 yards and three touchdowns — along with 8-of-9 passing for 68 yards and two scores — seemed routine. He's almost never at linebacker and instead plays a deep third at free safety, stepping into the box on occasion.
Kiser did not have to carry a big workload on defense Friday night. He wasn't delivering thunderous hits or jumping into piles. Kiser’s fingerprints on his team are evident, though. Beyond admonishing the official, Kiser’s voice was constantly heard pre-snap, during plays and amid timeouts.
“You can see him out in the middle of the field between plays having his arm around guys, teaching them and getting them better on the field since us coaches can’t be out there with them,” Berry said. “A lot of times at halftime, he will speak up and tell the line what they need to do better. And a lot of times, he’s right.
“He’s a coach on the field. Offensively, defensively — he’s always coming over and talking to us about what he sees and offers suggestions on what might be there. Most of the time, he’s right.”
Playing free safety has developed Kiser into a solid tackler in open space. He’s amassed a career-high 118 tackles this season — 49 of which were solo. It’s why defensive coordinator Clark Lea might initially play Kiser at rover before developing him into a buck.
“He is sort of a rover — where his (high school) position is more like a linebacker-safety (hybrid),” said Tom Lemming, a recruiting analyst for CBS Sports Network. “He’s a lot like (Drue) Tranquill. He has Tranquill-like ability.”
The strip-and-score showed Kiser’s nose for the football. In the last two seasons, Kiser has 15 interceptions. His seven interceptions, four forced fumbles and two defensive touchdowns in 2018 lead the Panthers.
Pioneer’s Wing-T offense features Kiser’s athleticism. He’s rushed for 1,588 yards and 38 touchdowns on 133 carries this year. Berry does not want his quarterback risking injury at linebacker, but he makes sure to offer him practice reps.
“Instinct,” said Berry on what Kiser shows at linebacker. “He reads the triangle well. If we are telling him to read the guards, he knows exactly where to fit. We do a lot of spilling to our linebackers, and he knows exactly where to fit off the defensive line. Like I said, he just has a knack for the ball.
“As you saw tonight, he’s a great open-field tackler. He can run sideline to sideline and help over the top in coverage ... Sometimes you think they are going to get a fade, and he just comes out of nowhere.”
Kiser has not yet decided whether he will enroll early at Notre Dame, Berry said. Arriving in January would offer Kiser an early start at making any weight gains he might require.
That decision can wait until after his season. To make next week’s championship game, Pioneer must top unbeaten Adams Central (13-0) on Friday. As Kiser conveyed his dissatisfaction following last week's blowout, he acknowledged there is room to improve.
“I need to get used to playing in tight quarters a lot,” Kiser said. “Obviously, going into college Division I ball, I’m going to have to get more physical. It is a faster, physical game, so obviously I’m going to have to adjust to that.”