SAN FRANCISCO — Not much has rattled DeShone Kizer this fall.
He surprised teammates with his poise and command of the offense after taking over for an injured Malik Zaire at Virginia in Week 2, a game which culminated with his game-winning 39-yard heave to Will Fuller. A week later, he played a relatively clean game against a Georgia Tech team everyone thought was good in September, responding well from an end zone interception to lead Notre Dame to a convincing win over the defending Orange Bowl champs.
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Kizer threw for over 300 yards as his running backs struggled and receivers dropped passes at Clemson, coming a two-point conversion try short of sending Notre Dame into overtime with a team that’s currently No. 1 in the College Football Playoff rankings. In the two weeks after that Death Valley defeat, Kizer guided Notre Dame’s offense to 82 points against Navy and USC. When Notre Dame needed a play against Temple, he found Fuller for yet another game-winning touchdown.
But Kizer’s final challenge of the regular season looks to be his most difficult. After two weeks of turgid, sloppy play against Wake Forest and Boston College, the redshirt freshman from Toledo, Ohio will have to push Notre Dame’s offense — likely without running back C.J. Prosise — to what could be a season-defining victory at Stanford.
“He's a very strong person,” coach Brian Kelly said. “He knows who he is. He's comfortable in who he is as a person. … (He) can recognize when he makes a mistake and he can move past it. And that's why he's destined to be a great player because he can learn from his mistakes and move on.”
It’s easy to forget Kizer will only make start No. 10 of his college career Saturday in Palo Alto. He comes off publicly as mature beyond his years, and his teammates laud his composure behind the scenes.
“He’s cool, calm and composed,” wide receiver Chris Brown said. “We moved forward from (Boston College), we corrected the mistakes and he’s going to continue to do what he does.”
At his best, Kizer can pick apart defenses and stretch the field. He’s not a natural at the read option, but he has sneaky speed for someone who’s 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds.
But he doesn’t view himself as the focal point of the Irish offense. Accurate or not — Fuller, a strong offensive line and, when healthy, Prosise are probably those guys — Kizer’s coaches teammates feel he has the right approach to handling the adversity and pressure that come with a College Football Playoff race.
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“I don’t have to go out there and have this spectacular game for myself,” Kizer said. “… As a quarterback, you can’t be the reason we lose a game, and that’s more my mentality. You have to make sure that you’re in the right play, whether that be run or pass and that you’re getting the ball to the veterans or playmakers or hot hand at the time.”
But whereas Everett Golson wilted as soon as turbulence hit last year, Kizer came out of the Boston College game viewing it as a harsh learning experience. Unfortunately for Notre Dame, it’s a little late in the season for learning experiences — the Irish dropped from No. 4 to No. 6 thanks in part to it — but if it means the Irish offense plays one of its best games of the season on Saturday in the Bay Area, it might be enough to get this team into the College Football Playoff top four when the rankings matter Dec. 5.
“(Quarterbacks) have to be comfortable in their own skin,” Kelly said. “They have to be certainly confident in themselves first and know who they are and can't be worried about what other people think or perceive them to be. And DeShone knows who he is.”