Will DeShone Kizer's anticipated NFL Draft slide have a happy ending?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The question that hovers over DeShone Kizer in the hours leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft is: What could he have done differently to prevent the perception of depreciating?

The more pertinent question, perhaps years from now, is whether the former Notre Dame quarterback will be better for it.

“I didn't give any quarterback in this class a first-round grade,” said draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “But if I were forced to take one in the first round, it would be Kizer, because I think all the pieces are there for a top 10 pick.

“At this point, I think Kizer is going to fall out of the first round, and it could be a blessing in disguise.”

Especially if his landing spot is San Francisco or Arizona or New Orleans, three teams that don't have an immediate need for a starting QB but might be willing to invest a second-round pick in a short-term apprentice.

The draft's first round kicks off Thursday night in Philadelphia (ESPN, NFL Network), with rounds 2-3 starting at 7 p.m. Friday, and the final four rounds of the seven-round draft being staged Saturday, beginning at noon.

Beyond Kizer, the only other two Notre Dame players likely to be drafted are defensive linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, both Day 3 projections. Linebacker James Onwualu, with a strong Pro Day performance, is the most likely to surprise among the Irish draft hopefuls not invited to the NFL Combine.

North Carolina's Mitchell Trubisky is the favorite to be the first quarterback taken, with Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes — all underclassmen — the other most likely first-round possibilities.

According to the betting website, sportsbettingdime.com, Kizer is the favorite, at 11-4 odds, to be the last of the 22 prospects attending the draft in person to leave the Green Room. ND head coach Brian Kelly is in Philly to keep Kizer company.

There's still an outside chance Kizer, the first Notre Dame player ever to give up his final two years of college eligibility, could become the school's 67th-ever first-round pick and seventh since 2012.

But wherever he goes, he'll be in a small fraternity of former Notre Dame quarterbacks who have been in demand at the next level.

In the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present), the Irish have signed 26 scholarship quarterbacks, including current starter Brandon Wimbush, current backup Ian Book and June arrival Avery Davis. Of those 26, 14 have started at least one game in a Notre Dame uniform.

And of the 26, including the 12 who have finished or will finish elsewhere, only three have heard their names called in an NFL Draft: Arnaz Battle, as a wide receiver who went in the sixth round in 2003; Brady Quinn, first round in 2007; and Jimmy Clausen, second round 2010.

Of those three, only Battle actually played in more than 25 NFL games (113) and easily had the lengthiest pro career (nine seasons).

Former five-star QB prospect Gunner Kiel, who left Notre Dame in the spring of 2013 to transfer to Cincinnati, also happens to be in this year's draft pool but isn't even considered a draft afterthought.

“I just finalized my rankings, and he's my No. 23 quarterback,” Wright said, which is well, well, well outside of the draftable range. And he's had opportunities.

“He was at the East-West Shrine Game. That was a big stage for him. He's got a lot of the tools you look for. He's just one of those guys that, for one reason or another, something's missing that has prevented him from putting it all together.

“I won't be surprised if he gets into a camp, because he's not untalented. But he's very much an enigma.”

Less enigmatic, but way off the NFL radar is impending grad transfer Malik Zaire, who shared No. 1 QB duties with Kizer in the 2016 season opener with Texas.

“He really needs to rehabilitate himself, because he looked awful last year,” Wright said of Zaire, who will carry three career starts to his next school. “Maybe he gets a look as a conversion to another position — maybe a running back or something, but even that's a projection.

“It's not like he's been incredibly productive. He just needs to go somewhere and play and show he can play somewhere on the field, though he won't likely play in the NFL as a quarterback.”

Which brings us back to Kizer, who has spent the past week trying to recast a quote he made about him and NFL standout starters Tom Brady and Cam Newton.

“You know, when you decide to play a game like this, you're going to try and model yourself after the greats,” he said Saturday during the NBCSN telecast of the Blue-Gold Game at Notre Dame Stadium.

“It was a comment that I made — and I'm going stand by it. Those are the people that I want to get to. I think that I am pretty comparable in size with one of the best in the league. I would love to have the preparation and to exhibit the intellect that a guy like Tom Brady does.

“So for me, why play this game if you don't want to go out there and be the greatest? That's kind of my whole mindset behind this process, and how it always will be moving forward.”

The quote did nothing to alter Kizer's draftability, according to multiple analysts. Nor really did his performance at the NFL Combine in early March or at ND's Pro Day later in the month.

“I think the only way DeShone Kizer could have convinced people he was a sure-fire, first-round pick, the only way he could have answered the questions that wouldn't go away is with another year in college,” Wright said.

“And certainly the lack of experience is a concern — only two years as a starter. Then there's the record. You keep hearing the record, 4-8. Yeah, he only won four games, but I think there were two or three games where he put the team in position to win late, before the defense kind of let them down.”

• Indeed, Kizer rallied the Irish from a 31-14 deficit at Texas to get Notre Dame into overtime before the Irish defense was steamrolled in the second overtime of a 50-47 loss.

• Against Michigan State, Kizer rallied ND from a 29-point hole to a 36-28 deficit in the fourth quarter, but coach Brian Kelly elected to punt the last time ND had the ball, and the Irish defense could never get the ball back.

• Against Duke, Kizer hit Equanimeous St. Brown with a 12-yard scoring pass with 7:46 left for a 35-28 advantage, but the ND defense surrendered 10 points in the final 6:47 in what turned out to be the final game for deposed Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

• Against Navy, Kelly elected to have the Irish kick a field goal down 28-24 with 7:28 left, cutting the deficit to one point. But the Irish defense could never get the ball back.

• Against Virginia Tech, the Irish entered the fourth quarter leading 31-21, but surrendered 13 fourth-quarter points to fall 34-31.

Why Kizer didn't return to Notre Dame for the 2017 season he has never directly addressed, but even the analysts who maintain another year of college would have benefited Kizer also point out the 2018 quarterback class is potentially loaded at the QB position so being in the 2017 draft might make the best business sense.

“This year reminds me a lot of the 2014 draft,” Wright said. “You have options but no consensus, seven or eight quarterbacks with starting potential, but they all have potentially fatal flaws. In that 2014 draft the best quarterback to come out of this draft winds up being a second-round pick, Derek Carr.

“And that may be about to happen again.”

2017 NFL Draft

WHEN: Round 1 at 8 p.m. EDT, Thursday; Rounds 2-3 at 7 p.m., Friday; Rounds 4-7 at noon, Saturday.

WHERE: Philadelphia Museum of Art at Eakins Oval, Philadelphia.

TV: Thursday: ESPN, NFL Network; Friday: ESPN 7-8 p.m., ESPN2 after 8 p.m., NFL Network; Saturday: ESPN, NFL Network.

LIVE STREAM: WatchESPN, NFL.com.

ND DRAFT HOPEFULS: QB DeShone Kizer, DL Jarron Jones, DL Isaac Rochell, LB James Onwualu, LS Scott Daly, RB Tarean Folston, CB Cole Luke, S Avery Sebastian, TE Chase Hounshell.

Former Notre Dame QB DeShone Kizer will be one of 22 prospects attending the NFL Draft in person when it kicks off with the first round on Thursday night. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)