SOUTH BEND, Ind. — DeShone Kizer established himself as one of college football’s most promising quarterbacks last fall, throwing for 21 touchdowns and rushing for 10 more. But there was still plenty of room for improvement in his game.
On Sunday against Texas, Kizer treated the crowd of 100,000 and a record TV audience to some of the strides he’s made between his redshirt freshman and redshirt sophomore seasons. Two throws in particular represented those gains.
The first came midway through the third quarter with Notre Dame trailing by 10. Facing third and goal on the five-yard line, Kizer identified Texas’ “picket fence” coverage with a bunch of players lined up across the front of the end zone. Running back Tarean Folston, split out to the boundary, was bracketed by a cornerback and former five-star linebacker Malik Jefferson.
So Kizer pump faked toward receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, who had two players in the vicinity, and scrambled outside the pocket. Torii Hunter Jr. flashed open and Kizer threw off-balance to his team captain for a touchdown.
“Any time anyone gets into a zone coverage like that in the end zone there’s a lot of spots that you kind of lose,” Kizer said. “Typically, it’s the back line, but in that case I was able to scramble out and create time and Torii came open in the front end of the end zone.”
Kizer added on his line of thinking on that throw: “Now it’s time to be the athlete that I am and try to go make a play to score in the red zone rather than trying to stick one in tight and end up having a tipped ball or a pick.”
Kizer struggled to identify double coverage at times last year, which led to his first career interception against Georgia Tech and a couple of other poor red zone decisions. But on a third down, with his team down 10 points on the road in a hostile environment, Kizer cooly picked up what Texas’ defense was doing, went through his progressions and found time outside the pocket to easily hit Hunter for a score. Nothing about it was forced.
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“Last year he would have tried to drill it into the primary receiver in bracket coverage,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think he probably would have you had rushed the throw and it would have been incomplete. We've worked hard on bracket coverage with him, being more patient. You're not getting a great pass rush down there because they're doubling out, keep working toward the line of scrimmage. Be patient. Guys will find openings on the back end line and the pylons.
“He was patient, and I think that that was a step in the right direction for him.”
The second throw had less to do with good decision-making — in fact, Kizer actually made a poor decision on it — and was more about the kind of quarterbacking talent possessed by a guy who a handful of prognosticators are pegging as a 2017 NFL Draft first-round pick.
With Notre Dame down three points early in the fourth quarter, and this time facing a third-and-eight from the Texas 17, Kizer floated a picturesque pass to running back Josh Adams — who made an excellent catch himself — for a go-ahead touchdown.
Left tackle Mike McGlinchey, who’s generally the team's most reliable offensive lineman, was a little slow on his block and Kizer had pressure over his blind side/left shoulder. A Texas player had a free run at Kizer, too, after quickly shedding tight end Durham Smythe’s chip — that’s the protection Kizer missed — just beyond the line of scrimmage.
But even under that pressure, Kizer dropped a perfect throw into Adams’ arms on a wheel route for a score.
“That’s usually how fast he gets the ball out on that type of play,” Adams said. “I think we executed it well, just like we practiced week in and week out and I think it definitely showed in the game.”
“He missed that protection, he usually gets that protection right,” Kelly said. “He had been seeing that nickel fire all day and for some reason he missed that nickel pressure. But he's a guy that will stand in there as well and make the big throws. It was a great throw, but I think it was an even better catch.”
Notre Dame converted three of its five trips to the red zone into touchdowns, though one of those possessions ended when Justin Yoon’s field goal was blocked following a controversial non-call on Texas safety DeShon Elliott’s apparent helmet-to-helmet hit on Hunter in the end zone.
Without Will Fuller, Chris Brown or C.J. Prosise from last year’s squad, Notre Dame will need Kizer to head up playmaking efforts when it gets into the red zone. On Sunday, he did just that, and in the process showed a glimpse of just how good he can be in 2016.