Tony Rice's advice for current Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — There was a time when Tony Rice was a regular inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Those, for many Irish fans, were happier times. Rice was 28-3 as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback from 1987 to 1989, leading the Irish to an undefeated record and the program’s most recent national championship in 1988. He won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and was a Heisman Trophy finalist following his senior season.

In the 27 seasons since he departed, however, Rice has attended just four Notre Dame home games in person.

Why?

“I always feel like I can go out there and play,” the 49-year-old Rice said on Notre Dame’s campus last week, where he attended an advanced screening of the upcoming 30 for 30 documentary, “Catholics vs. Convicts,” which will air on ESPN on Dec. 10.

“If I’m in the stands, I want to be out there on the sidelines. ‘Just give me that (darn) ball.’ I want to play again. So why torture myself when I can stay away from it and watch it on TV and watch the replays?”

In the last two seasons, those television broadcasts have focused their lenses on junior Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer, with whom Rice has much in common. Like Kizer, Rice did not play in his first season in South Bend. Like Kizer, his first bit of action came in relief of an injured starter. Like Kizer, he was touted as one of the country’s premier dual-threat quarterbacks. Like Kizer, he beat Miami inside Notre Dame Stadium.

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) runs the ball during the Miami at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday Oct. 29, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA
Former Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice during the 1988 victory over Miami. SBT File photo

And like Kizer, he understands what it’s like to both sizzle and struggle under the searing South Bend spotlight.

“What I can say to him is, ‘Listen, if you keep your head on straight and play the ball that you are capable of playing and don’t let the hype get you, you’ll be OK,’” Rice said. “One play has to come at a time, which all of your coaches and teammates tell you.

“But just have fun doing it. Just go out there and smile. Don’t let anything rattle your (butt) and play solid football.”

Through eight games this season, it hasn’t always been easy for Kizer to smile. Notre Dame has stumbled out to an uncharacteristic 3-5 start, with those five losses coming by an average of 5.6 points. Kizer has completed just 59.3 percent of his passes, a regression from his first season as the starter, while being sacked 20 times. He was benched during the second half of Notre Dame’s 17-10 home loss to Stanford on Oct. 15.

He has taken those losses personally. They piled on top of him, poking holes in his confidence.

“This season's been so rough, especially at the quarterback position,” Kizer said following last weekend’s 30-27 victory over Miami. “I've had highs and lows — to have individual success and then still (be) losing games, and to have close games where you're not playing the best.

“This is just a cherry on top of a long first eight weeks of the season.”

Rice’s advice in countering the constant criticism?

Again, treat it with a smile.

“Although people said some bad things about me (during my collegiate career), still, you kill them with kindness,” Rice said. “You have to be more appreciative of what was given to you — the opportunity to be at Notre Dame.”

Of course, Kizer’s abundant potential overwhelms his inconsistencies. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound junior rushed for 10 touchdowns while starting just 11 games in 2015, breaking Rice’s school record. He’s on pace to eclipse that record again this season.

Through eight games, Kizer has passed for 2,038 yards with 16 touchdowns and seven interceptions, while rushing for 316 yards and seven more scores. His combination of size, arm strength and mobility has propelled the Toledo, Ohio, native into the first round of many 2017 NFL mock drafts.

There might be a temptation for Kizer to embrace the surrounding buzz.

That, too, is nothing new for a Notre Dame quarterback.

“(Coach Lou Holtz) said, ‘Hey Tony, you’re going to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated' three times,” Rice recalled. “Every time he would tell me when I was going to be on there. ‘But don’t let it go to your head.’”

Despite accolades and criticism, coaching changes and quarterback competitions, wins and losses, touchdowns and interceptions, Kizer’s head is still pointed in the right direction.

“As much as you want to look at each game individually, to have the season that we've had so far, all of that builds up, whether you know it or not,” Kizer said. “But to go in that locker room and sing the fight song the way we do when we win, it's a great feeling.

“It's the reason we come here to play, to win games and represent the university in the best way we can.”

If it were up to Rice, that’s what he’d still be doing. That’s why you won’t find Kizer’s predecessor cheering from the frozen, splintered wooden bleachers inside of Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday afternoons.

“I wanted to play,” Rice said last weekend. “I hate to lose. No one likes to lose, but I never wanted a practice to end. I never wanted a game to end. I just wanted to keep on playing.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly walks off the field with QB DeShone Kizer (14) following Notre Dame’s 30-27 victory over Miami in an NCAA college football Saturday, Oct. 29, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN