Notebook: QB DeShone Kizer embraces position at Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — DeShone Kizer stood alone at his 14-yard line, staring down the barrel of a third-and-10, bobbing his head to a hip hop beat thumping out of Notre Dame Stadium’s loudspeakers.

A moment later, Kizer took a shotgun snap, paused while the defense dispersed, then scampered confidently through a hole for 10 yards and another Irish first down.

The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior quarterback looked comfortable and unfazed by the 28,061 fans in attendance or the prospect of competing against the more seasoned signal caller lobbying for his job. In the interview room, he was just as relaxed; the Toledo, Ohio, native sported bright green pants with white shamrocks, leaning forward at a podium as reporters stood on chairs to peek over the massive media huddle pointing his way.

Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer said he's more comfortable than ever. His interview pants are proof of that. pic.twitter.com/lz62ua70j1

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 16, 2016

What a difference a year makes — both on the field and off.

A year ago, Kizer was a distant, all-but-forgotten third in Notre Dame’s quarterback competition between Malik Zaire and Everett Golson. His only memorable Blue-Gold Game cameo was a safety he surrendered in the second half. He wasn’t sure if his future included football — or, Notre Dame.

“I contemplated (whether to transfer),” Kizer said Saturday. “There was two great quarterbacks in front of me at the time. I wasn’t throwing the ball well. The spring game wasn’t the best for me. I was having some personal issues off the field, and I had to make a decision on whether or not football was the way to go, if I wanted to play another sport, if I wanted to stay at this school.

“Obviously you’re always weighing all the options on whether this school is the best place to be. Never once did I ever reach out to (explore) being a guy who wanted to transfer. I never even talked to my parents about it. But you have those thoughts in the back of your mind when you’re not having the success that you had in high school.

“But obviously I made the right decision, and we’re here now.”

Here: Notre Dame Stadium. Now: Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, in which Kizer started for the victorious Blue squad (17-7) and completed 10 of 17 passes for 113 yards, while adding 21 rushing yards.

In between, Kizer started the final 11 games of the 2015 season for the injured Zaire, passing for 2,884 yards and 21 touchdowns with a school record 10 quarterback rushing scores. He found his confidence, his accuracy, his passion (and his green shamrock pants).

A transformation was made gradually, one step at a time.

“The personal issues back home were cleared up. There was successful surgery with my girlfriend at the time (who had a tumor removed from her neck). Everett decided to leave. I was just getting into the business school,” Kizer explained. “There were a lot of things that were kind of restarting for me.”

That was the start. Kizer’s a long way from the finish.

But as his quarterback competition with Zaire carries into the fall, Kizer is noticeably comfortable — with his game, with his position, most of all, with Notre Dame.

“I’d definitely say that was one of the lowest points in my life,” Kizer said of the 2015 Blue-Gold Game. “But obviously a lot has changed since then. I was able to clean my plate off and truly develop into a pretty good quarterback. I got an opportunity and I tried to make the best of it.

“Now this is just another step in the road for me to take that low moment and continue to develop off of it. I’m really happy to be here. I think it’s one of the best decisions I could have possibly made to stay around and also to even come to this school (in the first place).

“Notre Dame’s a special place, and it’s been paying me back tenfold. I’m looking forward to continuing to represent it and using it to become a great quarterback.”

Tranquill’s déjà vu

Drue Tranquill could have avoided that particular corner of Notre Dame Stadium’s north end zone, and no one would have noticed. He could have ignored the general area where he suffered his second torn ACL in 2015, grabbing desperately at a shattered right knee after crumpling to the turf following a successful pass break up against Georgia Tech.

In his first dose of game action since that injury, Tranquill could have chosen to look forward, not back.

But to move ahead, Notre Dame’s starting strong safety first had to make amends with his past.

“That’s where I prayed before the game today,” Tranquill said Saturday. “I was telling these guys earlier, football is not a game you can play with fear. Every time I walk out there, it’s a fearless attitude and a gratefulness to be out there.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff was certainly grateful for Tranquill’s presence on Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior has become a staple in the Irish defensive secondary, and he produced three tackles for the Blue squad in its 17-7 win.

“It means everything to go back out there and play the game you love and share that with your teammates and your coaches and your parents watching,” Tranquill said.

There will be a whole lot more people watching when Tranquill and Co. debut against Texas on Sept. 4.

Hunter’s catch

Torii Hunter Jr. extended his left hand. The football found it, and it stuck.

The play-by-play of Hunter’s 50-yard catch, however, fails to catch its sheer improbability. Notre Dame’s junior wide receiver started on the edge of his end zone, settling under Malik Zaire’s rainbow pass as cornerback Nick Coleman tracked him like a shadow. With his right hand, he kept Coleman at bay.

With his left hand, Hunter reacted.

“It kind of was a reflex. I think I did it on accident,” Hunter said with a grin. “I had sticky gloves on – new gloves – and the throw was awesome. I just stuck my hand out there and made the play.

“To be honest, I knew I had to make the play. We needed that spark. We needed something to get us going.”

Hunter’s second quarter catch, the most dazzling offensive play in a game sorely lacking them, paved the way for a 13-yard Zaire touchdown run.

It was a spark, but not a surprise.

“Yeah, Torii’s the man, as always,” Zaire said of Hunter, who led the Gold team with three catches for 79 yards. “He’s probably the only player I’ve seen since I’ve been at school be able to do two sports (football and baseball) and school at the same time. That man is very talented. He’s a special player.”

Onwualu’s final run

Sheesh.

How else could Notre Dame senior linebacker James Onwualu describe his final Blue-Gold game at the end of his final spring, which precedes his final fall camp and his final Irish season?

“Sheesh,” said Onwualu, Notre Dame’s starting strong side linebacker and the most experienced in a youthful corps. “It did (feel like my last Blue-Gold Game) once it got to the second half. Four spring balls. Four spring games.”

Onwualu made the most of Saturday’s finale, racking up four tackles, two quarterback hits and one tackle for loss for the Gold team.

That finality is not lost on Onwualu, who will be surrounded by the likes of junior Nyles Morgan and sophomores Tevon Coney and Asmar Bilal this fall. Without the likes of Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt surrounding him, Onwualu will have to be more physical, more precise and more vocal than ever.

He has a few more games in front of him, and none that can go to waste.

“This place is so special and you really realize that,” Onwualu said. “I’ve been around some guys that are gone now. You realize it goes by so fast. You just have to take in every second.”

Jarron Jones' mother, Lakiescha Jones, has come prepared. pic.twitter.com/xqUoMrLAxP

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 16, 2016

View from the 50 at today's Blue-Gold game. pic.twitter.com/DwItZqY2R6

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 16, 2016

Warm ups underway inside Notre Dame Stadium. pic.twitter.com/bdzjjxp3Ft

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 16, 2016

Good to be back here. pic.twitter.com/IvKJEGFbtj

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 16, 2016

This kid knows how to rock The Shirt. pic.twitter.com/F1Ci4dCjq9

— Mike Vorel (@mikevorel) April 16, 2016

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DeShone Kizer makes a throw during the Blue-Gold game at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend Saturday, April 16, 2016. Tribune photo/MICHAEL CATERINA