Former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer looks back to move ahead

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — The first stride, once DeShone Kizer walked away from his final two seasons of college eligibility and toward his NFL dream, turned out to be a step backward.

Or, more to the point, a look backward.

He buried himself in film study, trying to figure out why he looked like a quarterback who might be regressing in 2016 and what he did to contribute to a preseason top-10 ranked Notre Dame team flailing its way to a 4-8 bottom line.

To help enhance that process, Kizer said he took on a “bunker mentality” — shutting off social media indefinitely, turning down interview requests from the traditional media, and pushing away all proposed marketing deals and endorsements.

This week, at the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine, teams that are trying to decipher whether Kizer — measured at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds on Thursday — is worth the investment of a first-round pick in late April were eager to hear those answers.

The 49ers, holders of the second overall pick, were first up in the interview process. General manager John Lynch said that Kizer “blew the doors off” the interview in their allotted 15 minutes together. The Chicago Bears (third pick), Kansas City Chiefs (27th) and New York Jets (sixth) were next in line to hear the narrative, on Friday night.

“I didn’t make enough plays,” Kizer explained in a mandatory media session Friday afternoon at the Indiana Convention Center. “The ball’s in my hand every play. It’s my job at Notre Dame to put us in a position to win games, to trust the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make the plays with me.”

Kizer is only the fourth quarterback in Irish history to be the primary starter on a team that lost as many as eight games in a season.

Two of the other three — Jimmy Clausen (nine losses in 2007) and Paul Hornung (eight in 1956) — ended up being drafted in the first two rounds when their time came. Heisman Trophy winner Hornung, in fact, was the first overall selection in 1957.

The one who wasn’t a high draft pick — Daryle Lamonica (eight losses in 1960) — went in the 12th round of the NFL Draft and the 24th round of the AFL Draft yet crafted one of the best winning percentages by a starting quarterback in pro football history (.784, 66-16-4).

The start of Kizer’s problems in 2016, after a near-storybook 10-3 run in 2015, was what he termed mishandling ND head coach Brian Kelly’s decision to start 2016 with a No. 1 quarterback tag team of Kizer and senior Malik Zaire, the latter coming back from a season-ending injury.

“I don’t think it held me back,” he said. “But I do think I spent too much time thinking about that rather than developing the guys around me, developing the trust.

“The 2015 team and 2016 team were completely different. We almost had a completely different roster on offense. And I think there should have been a little bit more time spent with me trying to develop that trust, develop the guys around me to make those plays in the fourth-quarter drives.

“At times, I was looking over my shoulder too much and I think that’s probably my biggest regret this past season.”

And he expects teams to continue to ask about it.

“They have a lot of questions about how a guy with that size and that arm strength goes about going 4-8,” he said. “I responded in the way I thought was the honest truth.”

And did the 49ers at least buy in?

“I guess we’ll see, if they come see me at the Pro Day,” he said.

That’s Notre Dame's own version of the NFL Combine, and it’ll be staged at the Loftus Center on campus March 23. Unlike the actual combine, it’s not invitation only. So fellow NFL hopefuls like linebacker James Onwualu, cornerback Cole Luke and running back Tarean Folston can audition for NFL scouts at that time.

Defensive linemen Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell were the only Irish players, beyond Kizer, invited to be among the 331 participants at the NFL Combine, an event that measure things like bench press reps at 225 pounds, time in the 40-yard dash and vertical leap.

Both of those players will meet with the media Saturday. By that time Kizer will have moved on to throwing for teams, not necessarily a given by projected first-rounders. But Kizer is eager to back up his claim that he’s the best of the 16 quarterbacks in Indianapolis.

“I think in these past two months I’ve been able to refine all the things I’m supposed to refine,” he said. “I’ve really owned who I am as a passer.”

“I was able to play in the snow. I was able to play in the rain. I was able to win games we were supposed to win. I was able to experience a not-so-good season this past season. I think I’ve learned from it, and all those experiences will help prepare me for being able to play, hopefully, in that first game next season.”

That’s quite a leap for someone who two years ago at this time was an afterthought going into 2015 spring practice in which Zaire and Everett Golson were dueling. Golson opted out of the continuing competition in May, announcing a transfer that would land him at Florida State.

Kizer’s cameo on the Blue-Gold Game to cap the spring was decidedly underwhelming. He completed one pass to his own team (for three yards) and one pass to the opposition in five attempts. And he was sacked for a safety.

Shortly thereafter, he contemplated giving up football all together to play baseball. But by the middle of September, he was ND’s No. 1 option at QB after Zaire went down with a broken ankle.

Fifteen months later, he became the first ND football player ever to turn away two years of remaining college eligibility to enter the NFL Draft. His reasoning, he said, was to chase a dream, not to run away from anything, including Kelly.

“When we decided as a family for me to play for Brian Kelly, we knew exactly what we were getting into,” Kizer said. “And that’s someone who’s going to hold you to standards that are higher than yours.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer (14) waits for a snap during the Notre Dame-Duke NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 24, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN