Two weeks before DeShone Kizer became the new face of Notre Dame football the quarterback returned home to Toledo Central Catholic where nobody saw him as a backup.
Before the Fighting Irish – yes, Central Catholic uses the Notre Dame fight song despite scarlet and gray colors – opened against Benedictine, Kizer addressed the team he’d led to a state championship as a junior. At halftime he hit the white board with head coach Greg Dempsey, suggesting the offense use a “stick” concept in the second half to open up the Benedictine secondary.
“It’s really there out of spread trips,” Kizer said. “It’s really, really there.”
Central Catholic used the route combination to manufacture a few big plays before ultimately falling to Benedictine on ESPNU. During the second half Kizer met with Toledo’s mayor. Then he floated through a group of donors, a walking, talking 6-foot-4, 230-pound brochure for the school. After that Kizer signed about 100 autographs. Finally he got back to Dempsey, talking football for another couple hours before calling it a night.
When Kizer took over as Notre Dame’s quarterback last week, threw the latest game-winning touchdown pass in school history and addressed reporters afterward with the maturity of a professor, it didn’t surprise anyone back home.
Kizer fit into all audiences around Central Catholic, which formed a personality equipped to lead No. 8 Notre Dame against No. 14 Georgia Tech. The quarterback had little trouble Wednesday with his first press conference either, holding court with reporters as much as answering questions. Kizer was as comfortable reminiscing about road trips with the injured Malik Zaire as recounting Everett Golson’s tumultuous departure.
“I don’t know any individual who can balance things the way he does,” said Central Catholic athletic director Dan Gill. “DeShone has an uncanny level of maturity and confidence in his abilities.”
Gill arrived at Central Catholic before Kizer’s junior year, introducing himself to the three-sport athlete at a summer golf outing. Gill came to Ohio from the University School in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Quarterback and athletic director found common ground over University School quarterback Sean White, now a sophomore backup at Auburn.
“Our conversations never felt like I was talking to a teenager,” said Gill, whose five-year old son has already requested a No. 14 Notre Dame jersey. “I felt like I was talking to one of my colleagues.”
Kizer and White both attended the Elite 11 Finals, about as specialized as Kizer ever got with playing quarterback. He started at point guard on a Final Four basketball team as a freshman. He pitched for the baseball team, which once seemed like his best sport. Kizer eventually focused on football while becoming a three-year starter on the varsity.
Scholarships arrived before his first season, but Notre Dame’s interest was tepid even as Kizer led Central Catholic to a state title during his junior year. Brian Kelly wanted five-star Kyle Allen, now starting at Texas A&M. David Cornwell (Alabama) and Jacob Park (Georgia) were also on the radar in a cycle when Notre Dame considered skipping the position entirely.
Kelly said the early perception of Kizer was too “pro-style” for his offense while Chuck Martin served as quarterbacks coach. During the spring evaluation period that year Kizer recruited Notre Dame to come watch him throw, gathering teammates before school for route trees.
“Only session of the spring that didn’t go well,” Dempsey said. “He threw for Alabama that spring and their offensive coordinator was going nuts, said Nick Saban would take his commitment. Tennessee was the same thing, said he’d have a spot until signing day. LSU was on him the longest and most, really wanted him.”
Kizer wanted to be off the market before summer and had begun to accept a long-distance college career. LSU looked like the best option. During a family picnic that spring his mother broke down as that realization hit home. With two younger siblings at home, the family couldn’t travel to Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa or Knoxville every week.
Kizer called Notre Dame back. He wanted another workout.
“He called up and said, ‘Coach I want to let you know I’m ready to make my decision and I’d like Notre Dame to be in the mix but I haven’t got a lot of calls lately,’” recalled Central Catholic college counselor Mona McGhee. “Who does that? This wasn’t a coach, wasn’t a mom. It was him. You’ve got to be impressed by that.”
Notre Dame’s staff returned to Central Catholic and this time Kizer nailed the workout, just before the spring evaluation period closed in May. Kelly offered Kizer the first week of June, got him to campus a few days later and took his commitment on June 11.
“I just liked his makeup too much,” Kelly said. “He was somebody that I wanted on the team.”
Kizer phoned in his pledge while Kelly visited the New England Patriots, about a week after Allen committed to Texas A&M. Kelly put Kizer on speakerphone with Tom Brady in the room.
“Yeah, that was pretty cool,” Kizer said. “That was definitely a fun time.”
It doesn’t touch the past week after that 39-yard bomb to Will Fuller turned Kizer into a celebrity. Dempsey connected with Kizer on Tuesday night, his old quarterback trying to move between student and athlete around campus. Kizer was finishing a group project before heading to the Gug for film study.
Kizer’s ascent would challenge any athlete’s equilibrium, but the foundation built at Central Catholic gives the quarterback a better chance at stability than most.
Kelly is 15-1 when starting a red-shirt freshman or freshman quarterback at Notre Dame. Kizer can continue that trend on Saturday while keeping the Irish in the College Football Playoff chase.
“He’s trying to keep everything as similar as it had been leading up to this,” Dempsey said. “He’s got good perspective on it. He told me last Saturday was a great moment, not let’s make more great moments.
“I thought Notre Dame was meant for him as much as he was meant for Notre Dame.”