DeShone Kizer brings businesslike approach to ND QB position
SOUTH BEND — The harshest appraisal that DeShone Kizer heaped on himself in the aftermath of his stark burst into relevance in college football’s big picture Saturday was his celebration.
A roughly 40-yard sprint with his hands in the air, punctuated by a soccer slide on the perfectly manicured grass at Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, Va.
Eventually, he found the man who had caught the 39-yard, game-winning pass, Will Fuller, that keeps Notre Dame on a high-aspiration trajectory.
“I didn't even know how goofy I looked until I saw the pictures and the videos afterwards,” said the redshirt freshman quarterback who on Saturday will become the third man to start at the position for the Irish in the past five games, dating back to last season.
The end of the sequence of unbridled adrenaline and jubilation actually had a pragmatic function. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound former Malik Zaire understudy couldn’t find the brakes.
“I didn’t want to run him over,” Kizer said of the 6-foot, 184-pound Fuller, ND’s brightest offensive star through two games.
It’s hardly out of character for the Toledo, Ohio, product to seek and create purpose and function in virtually everything he does — even in revelry.
And with all the cute stories seeping out of his past and into the mainstream this week — like the fact New England Patriots QB Tom Brady was eavesdropping via speakerphone when Kizer gave his verbal commitment to Irish head coach Brian Kelly in June of 2013 — the most pertinent ones relative to who Kizer might become, moving forward, have a common theme.
He’s all business — and yes — right down to his college major.
“You're not going to get that vocal enthusiastic (attitude),” grad center and captain Nick Martin offered, “but the focus, you can see it in his eyes. He's ready for every play. It's going through his head, like the progression and what he needs to do.”
What Kizer would like to do this Saturday is concoct some kind of encore to last weekend’s measured heroics in the 34-27 rally past Virginia that saw Zaire’s season aborted by a broken right ankle.
Perhaps because of the state of Zaire’s health, the eighth-ranked Irish (2-0) find themselves 2 ½-point underdogs to No. 14 Georgia Tech (2-0) at Notre Dame Stadium (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV).
“I like to consider myself a mental guy,” Kizer said of his mind-set for his first college start. “I like to stay within myself and keep things as simple as I possibly can. Nerves have never really been an issue for me. Normally when there is a mistake out there, it's mechanical or something to do with my footwork.
“I've always been taught that everyone's going to look to you when times are rough or when times are great. So I've always tried to keep myself in a really level playing field and a level mind-set, to make sure that I can lead my team or get with them and make sure that we're heading in the right direction at the time.”
That Kizer is applying that philosophy at Notre Dame instead of somewhere else took a twist of fate and some persistence on his part.
The Irish first chased consensus No. 1 quarterback prospect Kyle Allen of Scottsdale, Ariz., in the 2014 recruiting cycle. The five-star recruit eventually chose Texas A&M, where he unseated self-proclaimed Heisman hopeful Kenny Hill, two-thirds of the way through his freshman season, with Hill later transferring to TCU.
Kizer already had three scholarship offers — Syracuse, Toledo and Bowling Green — when he was still more rumor than reality and hadn’t yet played in a high school game.
But Notre Dame was a tougher sell, even after Kizer started playing and winning. At Kizer’s request then-QB coach/offensive coordinator Chuck Martin came to Toledo Central Catholic High School to watch the three-sport star throw the football and assess whether he was scholarship-worthy.
“I was never really a true quarterback/football guy, like some of these guys are nowadays,” Kizer said. “I didn't have a quarterback coach. I didn't go to all the camps. I didn't spend the time I needed to spend on being an elite high school quarterback.
“When coach Martin came in the first time, I was just raw. I was a big guy, big arm, really, really long motion of a baseball player, so that didn't really go the way I wanted it to go. Didn't throw the ball well at all.
“He left, and Notre Dame left. And I kind of just X-ed them out. But once I continued to grow and my stock began to grow and I figured out how to become a quarterback, I decided to give Notre Dame a call.”
Martin came back. And in one whirlwind week, Kizer made a great second impression, took a visit to ND, canceled recruiting trips to Alabama and LSU, and verbally committed to the Irish.
“It obviously ended pretty well,” he said.
But upon arriving, first reality, then frustration set in. Defensive tackle Sheldon Day recognized it and tried to defuse it when possible.
“Last year, seeing him kind of walk around, I wouldn't say with his head down, but just seeing him not getting as much reps in practice,” Day said. “(I) just (kept) saying, ‘Your time is coming.’ Things like that, to make sure that he knows he's next.”
“I knew I was coming into a tough situation with two studs in front of me,” Kizer said of Everett Golson and Zaire. “It didn't settle in the way I would have liked it to set in at the beginning of the process, when you go from being a quote-unquote elite athlete in high school, and you get sat down and don't get the reps you expected. It's a little rough, like it is on most freshmen.
“But after a while, I took it for what it was and accepted a year of not playing and took it and tried to allow myself to learn the game and become more comfortable with the speed of big-time college football.”
Kizer’s reps were limited in the spring, though, as Kelly and the Irish offensive staff invested most of them to see if challenger Zaire could separate from incumbent Golson, or vice versa.
Per Kelly, Golson had the best of his five springs at ND and he expected Golson to continue to lead the QB competition into the summer. But Golson had other ideas, and Kelly said when the now-Florida State starter came into his office in May, he had his mind made up and Kelly wasn’t going to try to change it.
Kizer too said he was caught off-guard, getting the news while taking a final exam in May.
“My phone was blowing up, and I was trying to figure out all these variances,” he said. “I had no idea why my phone was going crazy. So I got out and read that he was gone. It was obviously shocking.”
Then it was Kizer’s turn to shock, taking a quantum leap in his game over the summer to where at least his practice performances looked markedly different.
“I believe playing the position I play has a lot to do with being comfortable,” he said. “Over the summer I was able to get out and throw to all the guys as much as I possibly can, and I got quite a few reps in.
“When it came to 7-on-7s, I was working with the 1s and 2s rather than working with the incoming freshmen I was working with last year. With that preparation and all the reps, it allowed me to gain a little more confidence in my game.
“Obviously, that kind of carried over in the fall, and that confidence is now at its best going into week three.”
His relationship with Zaire has helped the process along as well. Kizer visited the junior QB at the university’s health center, St. Liam Hall, on Monday, and Kizer tried to steer the conversation away from football.
The two have roomed together on the road the past two seasons, where they did intersperse football with talks about life. Unlike the largely icy relationship Zaire and Golson lived with, Zaire nurtured Kizer. And the two Ohioans were tight off the field, occasionally taking off on the road with each other.
“We’ve driven through blizzards, driven through hail storms,” Kizer said. “We've done it all together.”
Although Kizer pointed out that Zaire pretty much did all of the driving.
“I can’t stay awake long enough,” he said with a laugh.
His football walk-up call came last Saturday, and Kizer is ready to drive the Irish offense now — and not a scaled-down version of it.
“We're running the same offense we've always run,” Kizer said. “We're game-planning the same way I've always seen us game-plan, and we're running the same offense that we've obviously run for the last couple years now.
“When it comes to having a leash, short and long, it's not really any different than what it's ever been here. We're going to run the ball. We're going to throw the ball. We're going to kick the ball and do the things that Irish have been doing for quite some time now.”
Words of wisdom
Virginia led Notre Dame, 27-26, as the clock wound down last Saturday. Just a little over a minute to play, and it looked like Irish freshman kicker Justin Yoon was destined to determine the outcome.
Senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell was going to make sure Yoon headed into this critical time in the right frame of mind. Cameras caught Russell having a heart-to-heart talk with the rookie.
What was Russell, who is rarely at a loss for words, saying?
“I wanted to make sure he knew that the game might come down to him and we trust his ability,” Russell recalled Wednesday. “We had a little laugh at the end.
“I wanted to calm him down. ‘Do what you do. You were the best (high school) kicker in the country last year for a reason.’
“I ended it with, ‘Do what you did in high school, there’ll just be a couple million more people watching.’ We laughed. There was a lot at stake.”
A bit later, DeShone Kizer hit Will Fuller with a 39-yard touchdown pass that took the pressure off Yoon — at least for a week.