SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — The defining moment of DeShone Kizer’s season, and perhaps his career, came in the dying embers of Notre Dame’s Sept. 12 trip to Virginia when he fired that game-winning 39-yard touchdown to Will Fuller.
But that wasn’t the moment when Kizer’s teammates believed the redshirt freshman, who replaced an injured Malik Zaire earlier that afternoon, had control of the offense. That realization actually came five plays before.
Facing a do-or-die fourth-and-two on his own 28-yard line, coach Brian Kelly called a timeout to evaluate the situation. The playcall coming out of that break was to have Kizer try to run for a first down, which he did, plunging four yards to the Notre Dame 32.
Kizer summed it up well: “That was a situation,” he explained, “in which game’s on the line, it’s fourth down, and coach decided to put the ball into the redshirt freshman’s hands who’s never even played a (meaningful) down up until this game.”
“That showed that dude was willing to come in and give it his all,” wide receiver Chris Brown said.
Next, Kizer completed an 11-yard pass to Corey Robinson, then found C.J. Prosise for a 17-yard gain to plow into Virginia territory. After a short completion to Prosise, Kizer found Fuller to spark Notre Dame’s 10-win season.
Between the fourth-and-two conversion and the heave to Fuller, Kizer proved to his teammates his composure was genuine. Fuller said after the Virginia game he was shocked at how poised Kizer was under the circumstances. This was a guy who struggled through third-team reps during spring practice and never was a threat to push Zaire for the starting job until the left-hander’s injury.
“DeShone gets thrown in there, and there’s always some doubt in everyone’s mind,” tight end Durham Smythe said. “He comes over the huddle, to all of us, and goes, ‘let’s go, guys, let’s go win a game.’ And you could see it in his face, there was no panic, nothing like that. For a guy to be able to do that right away without playing at all in his career, I was like, we’re going to be fine.”
Smythe has a particularly interesting view of Kizer’s progression, as the redshirt sophomore suffered a knee injury on the play before the touchdown to Fuller at Virginia. He missed the remainder of the regular season, but returned to practice this month and looks in line to start the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State on New Year’s Day.
So while Smythe was sidelined, Kizer went from an unknown to a nationally-recognized star who threw for 2,596 yards and 19 touchdowns through the air, and added 499 yards and nine touchdowns on the ground.
“Coming into the year, in training camp and stuff, it was so obvious that there was no competition between Malik and DeShone,” Smythe said. “Malik was making all the throws, DeShone was missing a lot of them. It was obviously a backup quarterback situation.
“… It blows me away from an overall standpoint how much progression he’s made. I think a lot of it is confidence, because I see that too, it’s not him making all the throws now, it’s taking hold of the offense and not being afraid to tell guys this and that.”
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Despite being a first-time starter who nine months ago was an afterthought, Kizer is considered a leader on a team stocked with veteran voices. But that goes back to his poise, as well as his command of the offense.
So when Kizer takes the field at University of Phoenix Stadium Friday against Ohio State — his home-state team which he didn’t grow up rooting for — he’ll do so as an unquestioned, well-known cog in a powerful Notre Dame offense that propelled the team to 10 wins in the regular season.
“I can tell you this,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Sanford said, “I am so proud of DeShone Kizer for what he's done this year and how he continues to develop.”
It all started in Charlottesville, Va., on a critical fourth-and-two conversion. Who knows where things will go from here with Notre Dame’s quarterbacks, with a competitive battle shaping up between Kizer, Zaire and Brandon Wimbush. But Kizer has more than seized his opportunity, he’s thrived in it.
“We’ve all been on the sideline and you’re waiting for your chance, and you gotta take advantage of it because if you don’t, you’ll get passed up,” center Nick Martin said. “He took advantage of it, and that’s what you have to do, especially at this level. We knew he was a good football player, he made it to Notre Dame, and he took advantage of it. He’s done an absolutely fantastic job.”