DeShone Kizer saved Notre Dame’s season at Virginia. He also started a trend.
Forget that chaotic game-winning touchdown to Will Fuller in the final seconds. Four plays earlier, Kizer flashed a skill set that’s been critical to Brian Kelly evolving an offense now down its starting quarterback, running back and tight end. Facing 4th-and-2 with 1:20 remaining, Kizer surveyed the Cavaliers defense, which put six defenders in the box against the Irish offensive line and tight end Durham Smythe.
Betting that Notre Dame’s six could block Virginia’s six, Kizer bowled his way for four yards. First down. Prelude to a career highlight.
From that point Kizer turned into Notre Dame’s best short-yardage back, even if he’s not the perfect solution.
In third or fourth down scenarios when the Irish need three yards or less, Kizer has converted 5-of-6 chances, with the only fail that two-point conversion in the final seconds at Clemson. That conversion was in the spirit of a fourth down try, even if it technically wasn’t.
Compare that to C.J. Prosise, who’s just 1-of-5 in that same scenario.
Josh Adams is 0-for-2.
“As a pocket passer in my head, I never really saw myself as a run-first guy,” Kizer said. “But we're quickly learning that when you add an extra threat to the offense … it's something that we have to do as a team, and I feel like I'm becoming more comfortable with the quarterback-called runs as the season goes on.”
Last week against Navy, Kizer carried on designed runs on three straight plays during the first Irish scoring drive. After a decent gain on third down he picked up five yards on 4th-and-2 at the Mids’ six. He scored a snap later on a one-yard sneak, although he got driven back three yards after crossing the plane.
Kizer stopped his feet on that rush, essentially acting like he was built like Tommy Rees more than a 6-foot-4, 230-pound multi-sport athlete. That moment showed how Kizer can still improve, even while scoring.
“I said to him, you’re a big kid, you’ve got to keep your feet moving,” Kelly said. “You can’t keep doing these things. He’s got the ability to be the kind of runner that we need in those kinds of short-yardage situations, but he’s not accustomed to it yet. I think we’ve got to keep working with him and I think he’ll be fine.”
“They let me know quite a bit that I'm 230 pounds and that should never happen,” Kizer said.
Kizer was outstanding in scramble situations at Clemson, darting for a 26-yard gain in the first half and a 14-yard rush in the fourth quarter. But to make Notre Dame’s ground game efficient, Kizer has to be able to keep it in the zone read and execute designed runs in short yardage. Kizer has kept the ball on zone read plays just three times in the past two weeks.
For a first-year starter, he’s been solid in running behind line, even if his authority is in question.
“Being a running back style of mindset, I don't necessarily have it,” Kizer said. “I'm learning as I go when it comes to setting up blocks and reading blocks and being able to get the extra yards that we need.
“But as of now I think I'm doing a pretty good job with understanding the reasoning behind the quarterback runs and how to be successful with them, and as we move forward, hopefully I'll become a better runner.”