A season highlighted by both the miraculous and by the cool, calm, and collected came to a screeching halt for DeShone Kizer last season in the Arizona Desert.
Prior, Kizer authored moments of domination vs. the opposition. Other times he found a way to overcome it. Two more times, with the nation watching, he and the Irish defense fell just short. It was a unique 10.5-game run as Notre Dame’s lead quarterback for the redshirt-freshman from Toledo, Ohio.
But on January 1, with his short-handed Irish falling 44-28 to Kizer’s powerful home state Buckeyes in the Fiesta Bowl, Notre Dame’s quarterback of 2015 and perhaps the future learned his most valuable lesson to date.
“I don’t know how many guys will go to (the NFL) but I’m sure it’s going to be a crazy number,” said Kizer of Ohio State’s talent-laden roster. “That was an opportunity for me to look at myself against a true national championship style defense. It was definitely a great learning experience. I was in the pocket and feeling guys all over me, and it was a feeling I didn’t have all season. That’s a feeling I’m going to be able to learn from.
“You have to make plays in situations in which you’re not completely comfortable…I’m looking forward to carrying that with me next year.”
He’s completely comfortable today, both in front of the media horde and among his competitors, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush. The trio has and will continue to compete daily for a role Kizer believes belongs to him.
“I’m sitting here with a bunch of cameras in front of my face and throwing to elite receivers (in practice),” Kizer said. “This is part of my life now. I like to look at myself as the Notre Dame quarterback.”
His dueling duo doubtless feels the same, and though Kizer relishes the competition, he has no time to evaluate it.
“If you’re going to be out there comparing yourself to other guys, this isn’t the sport for you,” he said. “You should be out there competing with yourself. I’m a guy that likes win from within and compete with myself. I know if I can continue to do some of the things I was able to be successful with last year, develop off of that, that this should be a year where I have another opportunity to step out on the field.”
Notre Dame’s two-game losing streak to conclude 2015 made it easy for head coach Brian Kelly to fully open his quarterback competition this spring. Zaire won it last season, though Kizer began August hopelessly behind. Wimbush is advanced in his development beyond both of his veteran competitors entering the trio’s respective second seasons, but is still nowhere near a finished product.
“It’s a situation where you have to take it day-by-day,” Kizer said. “You can’t get wrapped up in when the starter is going to be named or if you’re going to be the backup. You’re going to be waiting forever. I have two great guys by my side and in my room that are going to be pushing themselves to beat me out every day.
“I understand that with the experiences I’ve had, and the success that I was able to get in last year’s season, if I can develop myself into being a better quarterback than I was last season, that I’ll have a good chance of seeing the field.”
Fans often wonder how an elite college athlete could shy away from competition. Often it’s because the athlete rarely encounters a teammate close to his unique skill level, at least not until exiting the prep ranks.
That hasn’t been the case for Kizer.
“I never expect a job to be given to me. For some reason, with me, I’ve never been a guy where I was going to walk into a position where I was the sure starter,” Kizer offered. “All the way back to fourth grade basketball, I was talking to my dad about it – there’s always been a situation where there was someone around to push me. That’s just the situation I’ve surrounded myself with. I love that.
“There’s this wont that I want to build off of what we did last year, and being a starter is a part of that, but at the same time, every season from here on out, whether Malik and Brandon are here, or it’s me and a walk-on competing for a position, I’ll be (competing the same).”
With three seasons of eligibility technically remaining, the junior (redshirt-sophomore) has ample room to grow.
“This game is about consistency. I can’t have some of the balls that I allowed last year go down in the dirt,” said Kizer. “There were some big situations in which there were third downs in which I have to complete some balls.
“I’m just (focused on) keeping my balance. Making sure that I’m playing at 6’1” rather than standing up super tall and playing at 6’5”. As long as my balance continues to be where it needs to be, my arm continues to develop, and my mechanics continue chisel out to where I need them to be, I think this is a year where I can go out and be very successful.”
That success has to come to fruition without the likes of future NFL draft picks Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise, Nick Martin, Ronnie Stanley, Jaylon Smith, Sheldon Day, and KeiVarae Russell, plus a host of other major contributors to last season’s 10-3 Irish.
Kizer isn’t concerned in the least.
“I believe we have talent all the way across the board. Right now we’re in a position that I’ve never been in,” he said. “We have guys that can play multiple positions. It’s almost like, ‘Where do we put guys, and how much do we need to put them in there?’ because there’s so much talent.
“These guys are going to make plays. We have guys that are six-foot-six with 38-inch verticals; we have guys that run 4.41 (40-yard dash). Anytime you can put the ball in those guys hands they can make plays and extend plays after the catch.”
It’s clear Kizer realizes a talented Notre Dame triggerman will have the opportunity to spread the wealth among a host of up-and-coming Irish skill position weapons next season.
Asked how he might handle being told he’s not the team’s starting quarterback next fall, Kizer instead offered:
“I’m going to make sure I do everything I can to try to win the job.”