Joe Theismann weighs on on Kizer, Kelly, the state of Notre Dame football and ... defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Joe Theismann’s biggest, boldest takeaway from his latest trip back to Notre Dame wasn’t quite what the former Irish All-America quarterback was expecting.

The 67-year-old College Football Hall-of-Famer, who looks in person like a 10-year-old picture of himself, had a chance to visit with recently coronated ND QB Brandon Wimbush and star running back Josh Adams on Monday.

“The funny part about the whole thing was the offensive guys were talking about the defense,” said Theismann, who missed taking in the Blue-Gold Game on Saturday in person because of travel commitments. “The way the defense was flying around, and the enthusiasm and energy.”

Theismann stuck around Tuesday to do two things he does well in his post-playing days incarnation — give back and gab. He was the featured speaker at REAL Services’ Age of Excellence Awards Luncheon at the Century Center.

Prior to delivering his message, the Super Bowl champ, two-time Pro Bowler and long-time broadcaster sat down with a small group of local media to share his thoughts on, well, everything. Here’s a sampling:

• On Former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer’s Pre-draft Process: “I think it’s gone off the tracks just a little bit. I think DeShone has said some things that potentially will come back and stay with him for a very long period of time.

“He’s a very bright, young man, but Tom Brady’s played 17-18 years in the National Football League, has five championship rings. You don’t compare yourself to Tom Brady.

“Cam Newton was the MVP of the National Football League. You don’t compare yourself to something like that. Now, I had Roger Valdiserri as my public relations director. Roger gave me some great advice as I prepared to talk to the media about things.

“The thing is you want to aspire to be someone like Tom. And because you’re sort of built like Cam and you run like him, you’d like to be able to accomplish the things he’s done.

“But to say, ‘I’m like this and I’m like that,’ I think he made a mistake and said some things — not that they’re going to change his draft status.

“I don’t think there’s a quarterback in this draft that’s a first-round pick. They all have things that need to be developed and worked on. The best thing that can happen to every quarterback in this draft is that they don’t play this year, that they get a chance to learn professional football.”

• On Whether Coach Brian Kelly Is Someone Who Can Deliver A National Title To Notre Dame: “I believe he can.

“I believe this year, you’re going to see an entirely different Notre Dame football team than we’ve seen over the past couple of years. I think it’s a football team that has a couple of young quarterbacks. Our running backs our excellent. I’ll match this wide receiver corps with anybody in the nation.

“Defensively, we’ll be a better football team (with) coach (Mike Elko) coming out of Wake Forest and what they were able to accomplish.

“I think Brian did a really good job of reworking his staff. I think coach Kelly has done some really good things this year. And 4-8 is unacceptable here. It’s just not who we are.”

• On Current Irish QB Brandon Wimbush: “I watched Brandon practice last year. We’ve had some conversations.

“Brandon is a physical specimen, very articulate, smart young man. Wants to be great. He really understands what being the quarterback at Notre Dame is all about, and I think Tommy Rees being his coach helps that as well.

“And Chip Long, bringing in this offense — I live in Memphis, Tenn., as well as Virginia. I’ve seen the Memphis offense before, so I understand what it’s capable of doing and the way it sort of works, because I attended practices down there as well. And it’s exciting.

“From Brandon’s perspective, it’s just about finding a comfort level, continuing to improve every day. That’s the conversation we had — practice is more important than games, because the habits you develop in practice carry over into games, and you want them to become second-nature.”

• On Why Former ND QBs Jimmy Clausen And Brady Quinn Didn’t Have Longevity In The NFL: “I think Jimmy and Brady both wound up in a situation where they became a very essential part of what a team wanted to do, but the pieces around them weren’t in place, and they suffered accordingly.

“And then you start to move. And when you start to move, well I’m not yours.

“I went through this with (Redskins coach) Joe Gibbs. I wasn’t his. I had to go to his house, have a sit-down with him to make him believe I wanted to be his quarterback.

“If I had just relied on my athletic skills and relied on playing football, I would have never had a 12-year career with the Washington Redskins.”

• On His Own Draft-Day Experience, In 1971: Theismann was coming off an All-America season in 1970 and was the Heisman Trophy runner-up to Stanford quarterback Jim Plunkett.

Theismann, who changed the pronunciation of his last name from THEES-man at sports information director Roger Validserri’s suggestion, spent draft day with Valdiserri in his office.

“In those days, you’d get letters from teams about how they were going to take you in the first round,” Theismann said. “You get your hopes built up.

“Then the draft comes and the first round goes by. Sit through the second round, a little bit more discouraged. All of the sudden midway through the third round, I turned to Roger and said, ‘I’m going down to play basketball. Call me if anybody wants me.’

“I was mad. I’m down playing basketball. Roger sticks his head in and says, ‘Joe, the Dolphins took you in the fourth round.’ ”

“ ’Oh great, fourth-round pick.’ So I wind up going upstairs and talking to coach (Don) Shula. That became a fiasco. After that, I never ended up being a Miami Dolphin. I ended up going to Canada. My life is just one big story after another, some of them really good, some of them really weird. And that was one of those weird ones.”

Theismann (also drafted for baseball in 1971, by the Minnesota Twins) played for the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts for three seasons, then in 1974 had his rights acquired by the Washington Redskins for a first-round draft pick from Miami.

A little over eight years later, Theismann led Washington to a 27-17 Super Bowl XVII victory over his drafting team, the Dolphins.

• On His Message To The Folks From REAL Services: “I really believe when I talk to a group, I can change people’s lives, through the trials and tribulations I’ve gone through.

“I never stop dreaming. I came here (in 1967) at 5-feet-10, 152 pounds. I graduated at 5-feet-11, 172 pounds. And so it wasn’t, ‘Here comes this Adonis.’

“My first two years, I was a punt returner here at Notre Dame until Terry (Hanratty) got hurt. I spent my first two years in the National Football League as a punt returner. You can find a way to be successful. Sometimes you just have to look a little further than what’s on the surface.”

Former Notre Dame All-America QB Joe Theismann shares his thoughts on all things ND Football prior to a speaking engagement, Tuesday at the Century Center in South Bend. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)