A few years before throwing a game-winning (and season-saving) touchdown in a hostile road environment, DeShone Kizer didn’t impress Notre Dame.
While blowing up as a recruit at Central Catholic High School in Toledo, Ohio, Kizer worked out for a number of prominent college offensive coordinators. Ohio State’s Tom Herman and Alabama’s Doug Nussmeier raved about what they saw in Kizer, while LSU’s Cam Cameron told Central Catholic coach Greg Dempsey that Kizer threw a deep ball than most recruits he’d watched.
But it wasn’t love at first sight when the Irish sent a delegate to Toledo to see Kizer.
“He had an off day throwing the first time for Notre Dame,” Dempsey recalled. “I think it’s because he wanted it so bad to go so well in front of Notre Dame partly, but he called coach (Chuck) Martin and asked him to come back and see him again. He did it on his own. There was something about Notre Dame that just really attracted him.”
That Kizer went out of his way to reach out to Notre Dame and request a second viewing was one of many reasons why Dempsey gushes about his former quarterback. But Kizer is still somewhat of unknown outside the walls of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
He’s the guy who saved Notre Dame’s season — at least for a week — by throwing a game-winning 39-yard touchdown to Will Fuller with 12 seconds remaining on Saturday at Virginia. He met with the media for the first time after that dramatic win in Charlottesville and came across impressively poised and cerebral.
Those were just glimpses of the redshirt freshman quarterback. But Dempsey said both that heroic heave and his composed nature are exactly who he is, and who he will be leading Notre Dame the rest of the season.
“I saw many times before what the country saw Saturday,” Dempsey said. “He’s the type of guy that can elevate people around him.”
Kizer’s ascent to the starting role has been the product of rapid attrition. He was Notre Dame’s third-string quarterback during spring practice earlier this year as Zaire and Everett Golson competed for the upper hand in a competition that ended when Golson bolted for Tallahassee over the summer. During preseason camp, Kizer had to fend off true freshman Brandon Wimbush to win Notre Dame’s No. 2 quarterback job while also trying to push Zaire.
“Coach Kelly always talks about next man in,” Kizer said. “Since Day 1, which started way back in June, I’ve been preparing as if I was going to be the guy. I try to compete my butt off against Malik all camp and expecting for some time to come eventually throughout the season, and now it’s here. I gotta look at some of the guys, the seniors, in the eye and let them know I’m the guy.”
While the inevitable comparison to Kizer will be Ohio State championship-winning third-stringer turned backup turned starter Cardale Jones, he enters a completely different scenario than the guy who ended the South’s stranglehold on championships in January. Jones had more experience practicing in Herman's system and replaced J.T. Barrett late in the season when the Buckeyes already had an established offensive identity.
Kizer may not have Jones’ level of talent — few college quarterbacks do — but he’s hardly bereft of skill. He had scholarship offers from Alabama, Arkansas, LSU, Michigan State and Tennessee, among plenty of other programs, and wouldn’t have earned that interest without a certain skillset.
Dempsey enthusiastically praised Kizer’s maturity and leadership ability, which he said were apparent early on — Kizer started at point guard for Central Catholic’s varsity basketball team his freshman year — and added that he’s “always carried himself older than his age.”
It’s that poise that earned him instant respect from his teammates — “that shocked me a little bit,” Fuller said — and helped him take over the Irish offense in a difficult environment and emerge with a win.
“He’s very bright,” Kelly said. “He's got excellent leadership skills. He's respected by his teammates, and he can go in there, he's very confident. He just has a confident air about him and he believes he can go in there and win, and you love that about a kid that can go in there and get the job done. So he just carries himself very well, and like I said, more than anything else, he has a ton of respect from his teammates.”
Whether Kizer’s tangibles and intangibles are enough to keep Notre Dame afloat in the College Football Playoff race is the question that'll be answered over the next two and a half months. He passed his pop quiz in Charlottesville, but now the task becomes getting him ready to ace his next 10 exams on Saturdays.
“We know he's got the ability to play winning football,” Kelly said. “Now it's just kind of honing in on some of the specifics that we want to highlight that are his strengths, so I think that that in particular is what we'll go to work on here starting (this week).”