Analysis: DeShone Kizer on the spot, but so is Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As the college football world, and all its oglers, chase the new Notre Dame narrative, the peeled back layers of his life that put DeShone Kizer in his new, scrutinize-able, max-exposure existence are bound to fascinate.

Like that his 41.2 yards-per-punt average moonlighting as a punter on his Toledo Central Catholic High School team is better than half of the 81 college punters in the FBS who had enough attempts to qualify for this week’s national NCAA stats.

Or that he pushed away promise as a power-hitting outfielder/first baseman and as an oversized point guard to funnel his dreams toward someday being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback.

The 6-foot-4, 230-pound redshirt freshman, through both twisted circumstance and a transformative summer, becomes just that Saturday at 3:30 p.m., when eighth-ranked Notre Dame (2-0) clashes with 14th-ranked Georgia Tech (2-0) at Notre Dame Stadium.

The proud possessor of 13 collegiate passing attempts may not have a keen grasp of every page of head coach Brian Kelly’s offensive playbook yet. But he could probably tell you if there are any typos in it, a mere eight years removed from his championship in the Elmhurst Elementary sixth-grade spelling bee.

Perhaps the detail that best marries the relevant and the sentimental is that the man whom Kizer is stepping in for, injured junior Malik Zaire, is expected to be a huge part of the journey.

Kelly said Sunday afternoon that Zaire underwent surgery that morning on the right ankle that gruesomely twisted and fractured late in the third quarter of ND’s 34-27 rally past host Virginia, and ended his season as a player. But not as an encourager, as a resource for Kizer.

“We hope to have him going to Clemson,” Kelly said of ND’s next road game, Oct. 3 against the nation’s 11th-ranked team.

Kelly also hopes the defense Kelly puffed about in preseason, the one with 10 returning starters, with four captains, with multiple future high-round NFL Draft choices is along for that trip too — and the two home games that precede it.

This seemingly unrelated detail in Kizer’s big picture may be the most germane to the bottom line he’s about to contribute.

The defense has the resources and presumably the scheme to allow Kizer to grow into his new role, much the way the 2012 iteration did so for then-redshirt quarterback Everett Golson.

Golson finished a so-so 62nd that year in passing efficiency with a rating of 131.01, more than 50 points less than what Zaire and Kizer have combined for in a small 2015 sample size (183.92). But Golson got progressively better that season with fewer steps back as the Irish ascended to the No. 1 spot in the polls and played for a national title.

It’s not that first-year quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford doesn’t have a challenging week ahead, as so many observers pointed out Saturday night.

And that includes not only raising the level of Kizer’s capabilities within the Irish offense, but transforming immensely gifted and coachable but raw freshman Brandon Wimbush into a viable No. 2 option.

More on the spot though, is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, whose son, Montgomery — incidentally — is the new No. 3 QB.

The elder VanGorder’s 15 games manipulating ND’s defensive X’s and O’s have been characterized by oscillating extremes. The latest was an untimely regression that finds the Irish, with perhaps its best material in the secondary of the post-Lou Holtz coaching era (1997-present), sitting at No. 62 nationally in pass-efficiency defense after two weeks.

That’s after facing one starter, in Texas’ Tyrone Swoopes, who has since been demoted, and another, in Virginia’s Matt Johns, who labored against UCLA and became the No. 1 option only when incumbent Greyson Lambert decided he wanted to use a grad-style transfer to go lead a top 10 Georgia team.

The nation’s No. 2 passer, USC’s Cody Kessler, and No. 11, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, pop up on the schedule in the next five weeks.

Then there’s Georgia Tech and QB Justin Thomas, this weekend. Only six FBS schools are producing fewer passing yards per game than the Yellow Jackets’ 104.5, but when the nation’s No. 1 rushing team and No. 2 in scoring squad (67 ppg) does throw, it does so well. Very well.

Tech ranked 12th nationally in pass-efficiency last season, and has fashioned, against Alcorn State and Tulane, the best mark this season (285.04) — almost 70 points better than the No. 2 squad in that category, Memphis.

“Our problems were really eye violations, where we were not doing our job in being disciplined in our job in particular,” Kelly said of the ND corners and safeties, Saturday at Virginia. “We're in Cover 2, and we're not rerouting a receiver and we're not playing over the top.

“And so, you know, we'll have to be more disciplined in what we do in pass coverage, even against Georgia Tech, or we're not going to be in very good position.”

Meanwhile, the Irish pass rush failed to fluster Johns or the people in charge of protecting him. ND picked up just one sack Saturday, and has forced just one turnover over the first two games.

Kizer’s first play as the relief quarterback in that game was to get the ball to running back C.J. Prosise, who swept around right end for a 24-yard touchdown with 54 seconds left in the third quarter for a 26-14 Irish lead.

The defense gave it all back and then some as Virginia took a 27-26 lead with 1:54 left in the game.

This time Kizer concocted the magic necessary, including the game-winning 39-yard TD pass to Will Fuller with 12 seconds left, to keep the Irish as at least a curiosity in the national playoff conversation.

But if Notre Dame is going to stay there or advance deeper into contention, it should start with the phase of the team deepest in resources.

There are plenty of other tentacles that feed into who Kizer may become in the coming weeks:

• How comfortable Kelly is using Kizer as part of the running game.

The coach hoped to use Zaire nine to 12 times a game as a runner, with 15 as kind of soft cap. But given the recalibrated depth, or lack of it, at the position and Kizer’s skill set, those numbers all figure to go down.

“We feel comfortable running him, and we'll continue to run our read-option series with him,” Kelly said. “He'll be part of our running game.

“I think he's a little bit different in that he sees the field very well, he's got escapability. I just don't see him as elusive of a runner but he certainly is somebody that you're going to have to account for in the running game. … I think it will be dependent on how you decide to defend us.”

• How comfortable Kelly is upping the carries with converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise in the running game to perhaps 25 or beyond.

Junior starter Tarean Folston was lost for the season with a torn ACL on Sept. 5 three carries into his 2015 season. Prosise ended up with 20 carries in that game and 17 more against Virginia, while amassing the most rushing yards by an Irish back (155) since the 2011 season.

“I think that's probably asking a lot right now,” Kelly said mulling the 25-carry threshold. “I think he could be down the road. I think he still has to gain some more volume in terms of getting comfortable into the position.

“But I think we can ask more of (freshmen Josh) Adams and (Dexter) Williams. And it can increase with all three of them as the season progresses.”

• How the players around Kizer adjust.

Kelly knows from having to use multiple starting QBs in 2008 and 2009 at Cincinnati because of injuries, the line, the receivers and the running backs have to get in sync with the new quarterbacks’ strengths, weaknesses and preferences.

In both seasons, Kelly was able to navigate those quarterback changes well enough to get his Bearcats to a BCS bowl, the latter as a 12-0 team.

“We took about 10 minutes a day and just worked on routes and really just so they got a chance to start to feel comfortable with the quarterbacks. So we'll continue to do that.”

• Yes, Kizer will remain the holder on place kicks. Kelly doesn’t see the need to make a change there, especially since you’re dealing with a freshman kicker in Justin Yoon, who’s been a little skittish in the first two games anyway.

The changes, the most meaningful ones, must come on defense, when Kizer is on the sideline.

“I was really pleased with the way we played up front,” Kelly said. “Our front seven played very hard and we tackled pretty well. But we didn't make enough plays on the back end.

“And a lot of it was that we were not fixated on our specific jobs. That's something that is an absolute must this weekend against Georgia Tech.”

And beyond.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and the Irish defense need to shoulder the load as redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer grows into his new role as ND's No. 1 quarterback.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL

No. 8 NOTRE DAME (2-0) vs. No. 14 GEORGIA TECH (2-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 3