SOUTH BEND, Ind. — DeShone Kizer’s most glaring deficiency in his first year as a starting quarterback will be a primary focus for Notre Dame over the next month.
Notre Dame only converted 56 percent of its red zone trips into touchdowns during the regular season, ranking the Irish 91st out of 128 FBS teams. Turnovers were a problem — Notre Dame only converted four in every five trips inside an opponent’s 20-yard line into points.
Kizer did plenty of things right, accounting for 28 touchdowns and 3,099 total yards. But he’s still only a redshirt freshman and certainly can improve inside the red zone.
“His learning curve is probably in the short field areas and making decisions down there,” coach Brian Kelly said.
Notre Dame came away with three field goals in its first three red zone trips against Stanford. In a game decided by two points, the 12 points left on the field by not converting those chances into touchdowns contributed to Notre Dame’s defeat, though it was a far better showing than what Kizer had against Boston College.
In a three-point win over an Eagles side that finished the year 3-9, Kizer threw three red zone interceptions, which in retrospect was the beginning of Notre Dame’s slide out of the College Football Playoff. At the least, against Stanford, Notre Dame converted every trip inside the 20 into points (three field goals, one touchdown).
Kizer said the adjustments he has to make inside the 20, though, are relatively minor.
“When I’m thinking of the red zone, I’m thinking of opportunities that I could’ve lowered my shoulder and grabbed an extra yard, or opportunities where I could run through an arm tackle, things of that nature,” Kizer said. “It’s not anything that’re big, mind-blowing experiences, but more along the lines of having a new sense of grittiness to go get an extra yard when you’re down there since obviously we saw against Stanford that one yard can completely change a game.
Kizer’s red zone inconsistencies weren’t a massive problem for the Irish offense thanks to explosive playmakers like Will Fuller, C.J. Prosise and Josh Adams, who consistently racked up big-play touchdowns. Of Notre Dame’s 50 offensive touchdowns, 22 came on plays of 20 or more yards, with Fuller, Prosise and Adams accounting for 20 of those. That’s why Notre Dame averaged 5.09 points per trip inside the 40-yard line, which ranks 36th among FBS teams.
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But the Irish offense didn’t reach its full potential in 2015 because of its untoward penchant for leaving points on the board when it got inside the 20. That’s why it’ll be a focus as Notre Dame eyes the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State and into preparations for the 2016 season.
“(The Stanford loss) was really different,” Kizer said. “Typically I’m able to get over a game within a week or so, but not having a game to prepare for you start thinking about things quite a bit. For the last couple weeks I’ve been trying to re-play red zone situations and things like that.
“But I think it’s definitely a good learning process. It’s something that I love the fact I can sit here and go through the red zone opportunities and figure out how we’re going to go about in our next game. It was definitely a rough game to be a part of but it’s obviously something I’ve been able to learn from so far and I’ll continue to be able to learn from it.”