Inside QB DeShone Kizer's unique challenge at Notre Dame's Pro Day

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Brady Quinn felt naked.

And sure, a skeptic might counter that Notre Dame’s prized quarterback threw passes in front of NFL head coaches, general managers and at least one team owner in a navy blue T-shirt and royal blue shorts at the team’s Pro Day in 2007. And yes, technically, that constitutes appropriate clothing.

But it didn’t feel that way. And a decade later, Quinn still recalls the feeling.

“Once you get out there you almost feel a little bit naked, right?” Quinn explained on Tuesday. “You’re not wearing pads and a helmet like you’re accustomed to. You’re not around a bunch of your teammates and playing against a defense. You’re just out there and it’s dead quiet and it’s just you throwing footballs and telling the wide receivers what they’re going to do.

“Everyone else is just sitting there, watching. You can literally hear guys huffing and puffing as they’re running. It’s that quiet.”

The sheer quiet — that absence of cheers, boos, curse words or whistles — is unnatural, especially for a football player. It’s unsettling, distracting — an eerily silent spotlight. The Pro Day throwing session is also an unavoidable (and over-promoted) element in the NFL Draft process, one all prospective quarterbacks must embrace.

Then, it was Quinn. Now, it’s DeShone Kizer.

On Thursday, Kizer and eight other Notre Dame draft hopefuls will participate in the program’s annual Pro Day, busting out 40-yard dashes and short distance cone drills in front of various NFL personnel. The 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback, however, is unlikely to partake in those drills after completing them at last month’s NFL Scouting Combine.

He’ll show up, he’ll throw … and if all goes well, he’ll exceed expectations.

“Kizer had an up and down combine performance, but the Pro Day is different because you get to sleep in your own bed the night before,” said CBS Sports senior NFL Draft analyst Dane Brugler. “It’s a totally scripted workout that you’ve practiced, you’ve gone over. You know every single pass. You know you can make them; it’s just about execution. You’re throwing to your own guys. You’re on your own field. Whether inside or outside, you’re going to be working under favorable conditions.

“So for DeShone Kizer, he needs to look good at his Pro Day because that’s what scouts are going to be expecting.”

But is Kizer truly throwing to “his own guys”? The team’s leading departing wide receiver, Torii Hunter Jr., is currently at spring training with the Los Angeles Angels. Because of the lack of available targets, Kizer will likely throw to running back Tarean Folston, former Irish running back Jonas Gray (who he has never played with), tight end Chase Hounshell (who caught one pass in his five-year Irish career and played last season at Ohio State), and wide receivers Corey Robinson (who retired prior to the 2016 season) and Amir Carlisle (who graduated following the 2015 season). Folston is the only one of those players to catch a pass from Kizer last season, and he corralled just eight of them in 10 games.

But can a lack of chemistry and timing really affect a Pro Day audition?

Take it from Quinn, who missed one of his first Pro Day passes when he threw a fade route and wide receiver Matt Shelton — who hadn’t played the previous season — ran a go.

“That was one of the first routes we threw,” recalled Quinn, who played seven NFL seasons. “We weren’t on the same page, and obviously it was an incompletion. It was like, ‘This isn’t off to a great start.’”

But on Thursday, there will be no excuses — just expectations. Kizer is throwing the routes he chooses to throw, in the order he chooses to throw them, on his home field in front of his former teammates. He may feel naked — exposed — but the silent spotlight can’t be a crutch.

He must be composed, consistent — and accurate, above all else.

“We know he’s a good athlete with the way he can move around in the pocket, so I expect his footwork to look OK,” said Brugler, who projects Kizer to be taken in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft. “But his mechanics when he’s delivering the ball downfield, what kind of tweaks did he make between what we saw on tape to the combine until now? His base, is it more narrow? The way he can create torque with his hips, and then the overall placement of the football, is it right at the numbers where his receiver can catch it and go? The accuracy is really important here.

“They just want to see a very efficient (quarterback) from snap to release. They want to see accuracy. They want to see ball placement. For Kizer, that’s the big question.”

In this draft class, specifically at the quarterback position, questions abound. Kizer, North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Texas Tech’s Pat Mahomes are all eligible candidates. But in what order will they go? And what round?

Much of that will be determined by the players’ existing film. In nearly two full seasons as Notre Dame’s starter, Kizer completed 60.8 percent of his passes, throwing for 5,809 yards with 47 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. The broad-shouldered junior from Toledo, Ohio, also plowed forward for 992 rushing yards and 18 more scores.

The bulk of Kizer’s resume, for better or worse, is already complete.

“The Pro Day is just part of the process, but it’s largely insignificant compared to what you do on film and on the field,” said Quinn, who is currently an analyst and commentator for Fox Sports. “75-80 percent of an opinion is based on what you’ve done on the field. Another 20 percent, let’s say, is going to be the combine, the interviews, the individual workout, the Pro Day – a combination of all of those things.

“To be honest, most teams have a pretty good feel for guys after they watch the tape and interview him and look at his history.”

To that end, a player’s Pro Day can also serve as an indicator as to which teams are already interested. Back in 2007, then-Cleveland Browns team owner Randy Lerner flew to South Bend — with his entire family, mind you — to witness Quinn’s workout in person. Unsurprisingly, the Browns later selected Quinn with the 22nd overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft.

For Kizer, Thursday’s Pro Day boils down to yet another glorified job interview. And though he may feel naked, it’ll be important to look the part.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame quarterback Deshone Kizer runs a drill at the NFL football scouting combine Saturday, March 4, 2017, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

The following players are set to participate to some degree in Notre Dame's Pro Day on Thursday:

• LS Scott Daly

• RB Tarean Folston

• TE Chase Hounshell

• DL Jarron Jones

• QB DeShone Kizer

• CB Cole Luke

• LB James Onwualu

• DL Isaac Rochell

• S Avery Sebastian