DeShone Kizer, Brandon Wimbush embrace the unknown at Notre Dame
SOUTH BEND — The one notion that all three of Notre Dame’s quarterback contestants can agree upon early in their open audition to be the starter in the fall is the wow factor freshman receiver Kevin Stepherson has provided in the first few spring football practices.
“K.J.’s doing a great job,” insisted senior-to-be Malik Zaire, who took some credit in that development after garnering an interest in the early enrollee and helping to teach him the offense when Stepherson walked in the door in January.
“He looks amazing,” offered sophomore Brandon Wimbush of the unheralded, three-star recruit from Jacksonville, Fla.
“He’s out there running routes and catching balls as if he’s been here forever,” said junior DeShone Kizer. “He’s smooth.”
In terms of handling the media glare that comes with the open competition, Kizer — the unequivocal leader in starting experience — is also smooth. In fact, he’s the smoothest of the three when it comes to tamping down the idea of any jagged emotions in the QB room that might be percolating behind closed doors.
“I’m sitting here with a bunch of cameras in front of my face,” he said, collectedly, about his résumé. “I’m out there throwing to a bunch of elite receivers, and I’ve played in some pretty big games.”
How much Kizer is reciting from his heart and how much is from a mental script is seamless. But he convincingly purports to not only accept that he has to fight for a job that he did with similar statistical superlatives as first-year starter to John Huarte’s record-setting, Heisman-winning season (1964), but that he embraces the run at his de facto No. 1 status.
“You’ve got to kind of expect it when you’re at a school like this,” said Kizer, who started the final 11 games of 2015 after Zaire’s right ankle buckled and snapped in ND’s second game of the season, against Virginia.
“I never expect the job to be guaranteed. For some reason, with me, I’ve never been in a position where I was going to continue to walk into the season and automatically have the job, in everything I’ve ever done, all the way back to fourth-grade basketball.
“I was talking to my dad about it, I’ve always been in a situation where there’s always going to be someone there to push you. That’s just the way the coaches I’ve surrounded myself with like to coach. And I love that, because then I have to go out there and earn the position.”
That Wimbush is trying to earn the position this spring is as surprising as it is practical. The New Jersey product, with arguably the best arm and unarguably the best straight-line speed among the trio, watched and heard how Kizer languished with limited and largely meaningless reps last spring during the Zaire-Everett Golson depth chart tussle.
By deferring a redshirt decision, Wimbush figures he can accelerate his development now. And if he’s a clear No. 3 by the time the Irish open the 2016 season Sept. 3 at Texas, he’d be open to exploring what coach Brian Kelly sort of prematurely announced in February.
“Experience is huge, especially at this level,” said Wimbush, who ran the ball seven times and attempted five passes — just two more than wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr., did — last season as Kizer’s understudy.
“They (Zaire and Kizer) have that over me, but I have to prove myself and what I can do and that I know the offense and build a trust between myself and the coaching staff.”
The two areas of emphasis this offseason in that regard is getting a better handle on read-option running plays and being able to decipher different defenses and coverages. Wimbush did very little of either in completing 72.3 percent of his passes with a 37-4 TD-to-interception ratio while leading Jersey City St. Peter’s Prep to a state title his senior season.
To that end, in January he contacted private quarterback coach George Whitfield Jr. — yes, the same guy who earlier worked with former ND QB Everett Golson — to set up a spring break tutorial.
Unbeknownst to Wimbush at the time, Kizer was thinking the same thing and ended up being part of the same training grouping earlier this month in San Diego, as was Irish tight end Nic Weishar.
“No, Nic’s not trying to be a quarterback,” Kizer said with a laugh. “I brought him along to catch some balls.”
Wimbush’s biggest takeaway from his time in San Diego right before spring practice commenced? Attention to detail and the mental side of the game.
Meanwhile, Kizer’s relationship with Whitfield goes back years and their communication has remained consistent.
“We texted throughout the season,” he said. “There are some things that he’s able to communicate with me that is a little different than the normal style of communication, that allows me to hopefully take my consistency and grow with it.”
Consistency is No. 1 on Kizer’s spring to-do list, regardless of what the quarterbacks around him are doing. Having better balance in his mechanics and throwing motion, he said, will help that.
And so will, he’s convinced, the bad memories of the 44-28 beatdown from Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 against a defense loaded with projected high NFL Draft picks.
“I was in the pocket and I could feel guys all over me,” Kizer said. “It was a different type of feeling that I didn’t have all season.
“That same feeling, I’m going to be able to learn from it and understand it. When we’re playing in big games and great teams like that, that are national-championship caliber, you’re going to have to make plays in situations that you’re not completely comfortable in.”
Just like every practice this spring.