DeShone Kizer drops back to pass and the world in which he’s living becomes cluttered. The shield around him shows a crack and springs a leak. Suddenly, the chaos offers the potential of a drive-ending play for the opposition.
Carefully, deliberately, yet with a heightened sense of urgency, Kizer begins the process of reversing the outcome of the play. He’s known Notre Dame’s pass protections virtually since his arrival at Notre Dame in the summer of 2014. He has the instincts to stabilize the situation and then turn a potential disaster into a positive play.
When things break down to the point that he can’t know precisely where his pursuers are coming from, he seamlessly slides to the open area and keeps the pass or another one of his unexpected jaunts alive.
“Throughout my high school career, I had a good feel for what was going on around me,” said Kizer, who led the Irish in rushing with 60 yards in Saturday’s 24-22 loss at Clemson.
“My high school coach did a good job of using our offensive line(men) and their intelligence to run college-style protections. I understood those before I got here. I understand the weaknesses in the protections.”
When it comes to run-pass responsibilities, Kizer has the makings of a complete quarterback. He ran for nearly 1,000 yards during his final two seasons combined at Central Catholic High School in Toledo while passing for nearly 4,500 yards, 47 touchdowns and just eight interceptions.
At 6-foot-4 ¼, 230 pounds, Kizer is the antithesis of the other quarterbacks that have been on the roster since his arrival. Among Everett Golson, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush, measuring at the 6-foot-0 and above range is a challenge. They look more like running quarterbacks than Kizer, and to a great extent, they are.
But Kizer can snap off a 15- or 20-yard run just as easily as Golson, Zaire or Wimbush. Zaire and Wimbush in particular are capable of making that a 40- or 50-yard run more readily than Kizer, and they do it with more burst and sheer speed. But Kizer is a weapon in the running game in his own right.
“In high school, it’s a part of the game,” Kizer said. “I never wanted to be a run-first guy. I never will be a run-first guy. But I’m a guy that believes that each play is never over. There’s always going to be a new opportunity for something good to happen in a play. I’ve got to be able to take advantage of it and get the yards I need for us to move the chains and continue the drive.
“I believe my peripheral vision and understanding everything that’s going on around me allow me to feel where the pressure is coming, where the best defenders are on defense, and to understand the tendencies of the defender.”
When Zaire was lost for the season with a broken ankle in Week 2 against Virginia, the notion was that the Irish would be without a quarterback who carried the “get out of jail free” card that Zaire had when his protection collapsed.
It turns out Kizer is a member of the same fraternity.
“First of all, he’s a big kid,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s 230 pounds. He’s 6-5. People don’t realize how big he is. If you don’t take him on the right way, he’s going to be able to get out of it.
A play in the Clemson game showed just what Kizer is capable of doing when a scramble is in order.
“Our running back didn’t pick up a blitzer off the end,” Kelly said. “(Kizer) shook that off and threw a completion to the right-hand size. That, to me, was even more impressive that he could keep his eyes downfield on an unblocked blitzer, shake it off, and throw the football.”
It starts with a solid base-knowledge of protections, and yet when a protection breaks down, Kizer’s running instincts are top-notch.
“I’ve learned how to get the ball away and I understand that with the speed of the game and that with the speed of the linebackers and defensive linemen, I need to throw the ball away or take advantage of them dropping eight defenders and not really respecting my run game,” Kizer said.
“It’s all about feel. I think I did a pretty good job against Clemson of feeling what was happening when things broke down. It was slippery out there, it was wet, so a lot of the plays I ended up making won’t necessarily be made all the time. I got away from a couple mistakes, which makes me look like a hero when it was really my mistake.”
Put it all together – knowledge, instinct and God-given skills – and Kizer is another component within the Irish rushing attack, his failed two-point conversion run with seven seconds left against Clemson notwithstanding.
“Those things, you can’t teach him,” Kelly summarized. “He just has that ability to do those kinds of things within the pocket. We always thought he had escapability, but he can do a little bit more than that.”