Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer prepares for Death Valley crowd
A speaker system and a grass field can only accomplish so much.
Notre Dame sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer, who will descend into Death Valley for the first time on Saturday, can certainly attest to that. A little more than a year ago, back when Kizer was the third-string quarterback, head coach Brian Kelly pulled out all the stops in preparing the Irish for No. 1 Florida State.
He piped in crowd noise.
He played the enemy’s war chant.
He directed his quarterbacks to use a non-verbal cadence.
He demanded they practice on natural grass, similar to the surface inside Doak Campbell Stadium.
But when kickoff arrived and the tomahawks started chopping, Kizer came to a sudden conclusion:
A stadium full of hostility can’t be simulated, no matter how hard you try.
“As soon as they did the first tomahawk thing, it was unreal,” Kizer said Wednesday. “I never really expected it to be as loud as it was. We heard it all week at practice. We're out on the grass field and coach Kelly played (the war chant) over and over and over again.
“But once I really heard it and felt it and got to understand how loud it was going to be, which was probably at the first kickoff, that's when I really started knowing how loud and how crazy an experience it was going to be to play at an environment like that.”
Throughout the course of one game, Kizer received an invaluable education. He was witness not just to a road atmosphere’s challenges, but also how that enthusiasm can be smothered with a quick punch to the gut.
“Florida State is something that I've thought about quite a bit this week,” Kizer said. “It was a very, very loud environment. I've never heard anything so loud in my life, something where it feels like your insides are shaking on third down.
“But with that being said, the best way of quieting a crowd down is making big plays, and I got to experience that last year against Florida State where every time we got some momentum going, it wasn't as hard to communicate. So we have to make sure that we get things rolling as soon as possible and hopefully at least take it down a couple of notches on the loudness scale.”
Throughout Dabo Swinney’s seven seasons, the Memorial Stadium crowd’s ability to tip the “loudness scale” has helped push Clemson to a 41-6 home record.
But if any sophomore quarterback making his first road start is capable of channeling that energy, it might be Kizer.
Just ask the opposing coach.
“He’s an ‘ice-water-in-his-veins’ kind of guy,” Swinney said. “Talk about a guy who strolls out there at Virginia, and bada boom. The next you know he’s throwing a game-winning touchdown pass like it ain’t nothing.
“He just really never flinched. You can tell that the young man was very well prepared and ready for his opportunity. You look at the last two games, and they haven’t missed a beat.”
But the last two games, to be clear, were played inside the familiar confines of Notre Dame Stadium. Saturday’s test at No. 12 Clemson — with College GameDay setting up shop on campus and playoff implications hanging on every throw — will be another new challenge for Kizer.
At this point, he’s used to new challenges.
“You know, I think I've done a pretty good job so far with being able to cope with the hype of each game,” said Kizer, who has passed for 541 yards and five touchdowns this season. “There's always been something new for me, whether it be coming in late in the game when Malik (Zaire) goes down against Virginia, or having my first start at home against Georgia Tech. There's always some sort of a hype.
“We're Notre Dame. Every game is going to be a big game in its own sense, and obviously this is the first time that I'll really be playing in front of 90,000-plus screaming fans from down south.”
There won’t be a tomahawk chop on Saturday, but when kickoff nears, it’ll feel like Kizer’s insides are shaking all over again.
The question, as Notre Dame prepares for its greatest challenge yet, is how the sophomore will respond.
“He has a command presence that, when he goes out there with the other 10 players, you don't feel like you're putting a freshman quarterback out there,” Kelly said. “You don't sense that or feel that. I see that every day he goes out there, he takes control of that offensive unit. It's not meek. It's not weak. It's a presence that he brings when he goes out there, and I think that that's what he's brought.
“He's learning along the way. There's things that he hasn't seen before. There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well. But I think it's his presence that allows the other 10 players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful."