An Unlikely Hero

Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) celebrates after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against the Virginia Cavaliers with twelve seconds left in the fourth quarter at Scott Stadium. The Fighting Irish won 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 12, 2015; Charlottesville, VA, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) celebrates after throwing the game-winning touchdown pass against the Virginia Cavaliers with twelve seconds left in the fourth quarter at Scott Stadium. The Fighting Irish won 34-27. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The 2015 Notre Dame football season was to be one of perseverance at the quarterback position, providing proof that with hard work, passion and patience, good things will happen. But no one could have guessed such descriptions would be for redshirt freshman DeShone Kizer and not starting quarterback Malik Zaire.

Kizer would be the last person you’d expect to make an impact this season. A former four-star recruit out of Toledo Central Catholic High School in Ohio, DeShone was described as a raw dual-threat athlete with a lively arm, and a six-foot-four-inch frame capable of taking punishment when running with the football. The one thing he lacked was polish, which led to sitting out the 2014 season to learn the nuances of the position.

Little was heard of Kizer this spring as he disappeared into the background while Everett Golson and Malik Zaire took center stage, dueling for the starting quarterback spot. With nearly all the reps going to the heated competition, Irish fans fortunate enough to observe practice were just as likely to see Kizer spending his time with the kickers practicing his holding duties than they were to see him actually taking reps at quarterback. Kizer’s offseason was made all the more stressful and gut-wrenching when a baseball-sized tumor was discovered in the neck of his girlfriend, Elli, which required an extensive 17-hour surgical procedure to remove.

Despite the lack of playing time in practice and the painful off the field situations, Kizer endured and was promoted to No. 2 on the depth chart upon the transfer of Everett Golson to Florida State, fending off feisty true freshman quarterback Brandon Wimbush in the process. But as fate would have it, Kizer would be in line for one more promotion.

In the waning moments of the third quarter Zaire would suffer a season-ending ankle fracture on a quarterback draw, forcing Kizer into a game very much still in doubt. Notre Dame’s coaching staff – perhaps foolishly – immediately threw him into the fire, forcing Kizer to make throws from the shotgun formation instead of leaning on its touted offensive line and running back C.J. Prosise, who averaged over nine yards per carry. And the pressure amplified when Virginia took a one-point lead with less than two minutes to go, leaving an inexperienced Kizer to march down the field to keep Notre Dame’s unblemished record alive.

With twelve seconds to go in the game, DeShone Kizer took the leap from one-time No. 3 quarterback to unlikely hero. Kizer rolled to his left after an excellent blitz pickup from Prosise and unleashed a perfect pass to star wide receiver Will Fuller – who had whizzed past senior Virginia cornerback Maurice Canady – for the game-winning 39-yard touchdown, lifting Notre Dame to a 2-0 record with Georgia Tech looming on the horizon.

The Fighting Irish’s showdown with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets – which was to be the first true test for Notre Dame’s College Playoff aspirations – has become much more daunting with the loss of Malik Zaire. Georgia Tech boasts an explosive offense that has scored a combined 134 points in its first two games. Head coach Paul Johnson’s squad demolished Tulane 65-10 while accumulating 571 yards of offense, 439 of which were gained on the ground. Quarterback Justin Thomas has lived up his star status, throwing for two touchdowns while chipping in an additional 71 yards and one touchdown with his feet.

If Notre Dame is to have a chance against Georgia Tech they will have to score, and score often. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly will need to pull from the bag of tricks he used at Cincinnati when, in 2009, starting quarterback Tony Pike went down with injury, and Kelly was forced to start inexperienced redshirt sophomore Zach Collaros. Collaros would preserve Cincinnati’s undefeated regular season by winning the four games he started, completing 75-percent of his passing attempts and throwing 10 touchdowns to only two interceptions along the way.

It’s too soon to know if DeShone Kizer is truly comfortable with the label of starting quarterback. For now, the label of hero will have to do.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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  1. A part of the problem with a game like we saw Saturday is a problem that won’t ever, and should never, go away for ND. Any team that isn’t already a serious program is going to come in with a “nothing to lose” mentality. The coaches are going to throw every weird wrench at you. And, if the players are in a position to think they can hang with The Irish, their going to raise to a level they may have never reached…and may never reach again.

    As for GT, that won’t be the case. No doubt Johnson will come out with some new, confusing looks, but he’s not likely to get too far away from his bread and butter. ND knows what this is, and is athletically and mentally ready. Nonetheless, GT will probably still put up 30some points. The question is can the Irish match them. If the run can be established (not necessarily immediately) enough that the many passing threats are thorough, we should still win. But, that’s up to an already beleaguered offensive group. Will the Next Guy In mantra prove more than football bromide?

  2. Hiccups this Sat will lead to a 2-1 Irish. Defensive AND offensive play calling must be better….much better.
    The Irish HAVE the talent and resolve. Does the BK and staff have what it takes to put the talent in the best position to execute and win?

  3. Ron Burgundy self-help coloring book: “Dish It Out, but Don’t Take It! The all-criticism, no original thought method.”

  4. Wake up the echoes of Kevin McDougal. Everyone thought 93 was going to be a bust with Powlus out for the season. Granted the Powlus injury happened before the first snap of the regular season, but McDougal was thrown into the fire and did a phenomenal job. I think Kizer will struggle, but we have some serious offensive weapons. Now Fuller is going to be double teamed like crazy, so Robinson and Brown need to step up their game. Running game is going to be a little tougher because teams will force us to beat them with the pass. No worries…GO IRISH!

  5. @Kenny M

    I thought it was foolish for Kelly to have Kizer throwing out of spread formations because he didn’t need to (except on the come-from-behind drive). That’s the benefit of finally having an elite offensive line (I know they didn’t play that way the entire game, but Prosise did average over 9 yards per carry). With an inexperienced quarterback coming in cold from the bench, pound the football and give Kizer high percentage play action passages. Lean on the strength of your team — don’t ask an inexperienced quarterback to throw the ball all over the place. That’s just not playing the odds correctly.

    I’m happy the game turned out the way it did, and I give Kizer a tremendous of credit for pulling it off. Because, in my opinion, he was not put in the best situation to succeed, and yet he succeeded anyway.

  6. Kaiser most certainly must have talent. Pre snap reads may be challenging. Nerves? Possibly. Seemed pretty calm, collected and well spoken. The “D” was good against the run. I agree about Yoon too. His first miss in Texas game should be discounted. They had him positioned in center of the field. Play call was a quick screen to sideline which was blown up. Therefore, he wasn’t put into a position to succeed. This team has talent and the most “Speed” I’ve ever seen on a ND squad. May be a great game to watch. Thanks.

  7. Too bad for Malik. He seems like a great kid. Let’s hope for a speedy recovery.

    As for DeShone, the game-winning drive and throw had to be a great confidence boost not only for him but for his teammates belief in him. One thing that concerns me is the things I heard from the pundits. They were saying that because of the lack of depth at QB, don’t expect ND to allow DeShone to have any designed runs. I think that is a mistake. Injuries are going to happen and there’s only so much you can do to eliminate them. Many of Malik’s runs ended with him getting down or stepping out of bounds to avoid getting hit. It was smart. But guess what? He got hurt in the 2nd game and is out for the year. In order for this offense to thrive, the QB needs to be a running threat. You can’t have a read-option offense where the QB never keeps it. He may not be as good a running threat as Malik, but he still is good enough to be a legit running threat.

    Finally BVG has to step it up. Virginia gained over 400 yards. To me, it didn’t look like the players played poorly. They tackled well. I though they gave good effort for the most part. However, too many times Saturday, his defense was caught in a formation or play he didn’t expect. Particularly on 3rd down. That happened ad nauseum the last half of last year. Part of it what the youth that had to be thrust into roles they weren’t ready for. But part of it was BVG not doing his job to put these kids in the best position to succeed. He can’t continue to keep his job if the kids are out of position or are unprepared for the play that’s called.

  8. At the end of the day, the defense allowed 27 points which is actually NOT a lot in the college game. They forced UVA into three consecutive 3 and outs deep in the second half. The offense on the other hand could have ended that game in the first quarter! However they can’t score against a defense that isn’t completely unorganized and ineffective like Texas. BK needs to get a clue when it comes to redzone offense.

  9. Kizer will be fine…the Irish need to run the ball against GT anyway to keep them off of the field. Honestly, the D line and the linebackers will be fine as well. Corner play is pretty decent folks…if you look at the coverage against UV, it was the soft Cover 2 that killed the D, i.e. the SAFTIES. Again. Still terrible safety play from the Irish D. With Jaylon and Schmidt in the middle, and a solid and under-the-radar D line, the initial push should be good. Its the secondary and last levels of the defense where the Irish will struggle against GT.

    Let’s remember…Kizer was an Elite 11 finalist, a 4-star recruit, and was coveted by many top flight programs including Ohio State and Alabama. He’ll be fine. The D will be fine…I expect a lot of close games…as the Irish continue to score, their secondary and especially their safety play will allow other teams to keep it close.

    Pound the rock, setup high percentage 3rd downs, and continue to grind the clock.

    And Yoon is a freshman…cut him some slack. His leg is outstanding…he just needs some time to acclimate.

  10. Scott, why was it foolish to have Kizer throwing the ball when he came in? That’s what he is good at and I fully expect to see him throw it more versus Tech. Under Zaire the offense was built around the run game. With Kizer I think the offense will be built around the pass game very similar to what we saw with Golson last year. BK said before week one that he could win with Kizer so we I’ll see.

  11. Let’s just say, for the sake of argument, that ND and GT are both equally talented teams, and that both paly well on both sides of the ball. As a devoted fan of one team or the other, you might not think so….but just for giggles go with it.

    Then it all comes down to which team is prepared better, which one executes better, which one is ready to go from the very first snap, which one will play hard every play through the whistle, which one can keep it up for 60 full minutes. and which one simply wants this win bad enough.

    I know who I’m picking.

    In fact, you can even forget the qualifying premise.

  12. Really surprised at how poor the defense was; running into each other, missing tipped lame duck throws, etc etc. Losing Zaire has overshadowed the true shocker, which was how poor the DB play was, and how poor the 3rd down play calling/execution was.

    Long term, ND still seems to have issues with play calling. Sanford + Denbrock + Kelly = 0 for 10 against…Virginia. You could not make this up. The Three Stooges would not have attempted this skit…

  13. There shouldn’t be any surprises for the defense this weekend. GT is running the same offense it has. The difference betweent GT and Navy is GT has better atheletes to run the option..
    DK can win, he’s got the arm, he’s not a runner like Malik but he can use his legs when he needs to. The adversity from the VA game might just wake these guys up and realize they need to stop reading the press clippings and play ball.

  14. We will have to change our game plan. There is no question. Its the defense that has me really
    concerned. GT will score at will if they like they did sat.

  15. Redfield playing with one hand was a brilliant move. Cost ND an easy interception. Not that he’s any worse than the rest of the secondary however. Oh well, at least ND landed the #1 kicker who can’t make any field goals.

  16. Agree. The secondary has to take a step forward. Probably won’t see a ton of passes on Saturday but the secondary has to be rock solid in run support. I need to see a big effort out of this defense to have any real hope moving forward.

  17. I’m not worried about Kizer. He will be fine. That throw at the end of the game was big time. If he can make that throw in those circumstances, I can live with the growing pains. The bigger concern on offense is the invisibility of the TE position. If this is what we are going to get, get Alize Jones in there and let him figure it out. Also, QB’s are looking at Fuller too much. Where’s Corey Robinson? Where’s Torii Hunter Jr? Carlisle is average. It’s time for that experiment to be over. Chris Brown? I’ve seen nothing from him either.

    Front 7 on defense has been good enough, albeit without any pass rushers. Secondary, at this point, is extremely overrated. That’s where the fault lies.

  18. TB: GT will quite likely be taking ND to the woodshed Saturday. If ND was to scored 40 points, they’d very likely still lose. GT is very, very solid.
    Have a Plan B for the second half on Saturday…..yard chores, other games, heavy drinking….

  19. “The Fighting Irish’s showdown with the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets – which was to be the first true test for Notre Dame’s College Playoff aspirations – has become much more daunting with the loss of Malik Zaire.”

    Not so fast, not so fast!

  20. I agree on Kizer. He has the talent, he just needs experience. I guess getting some playing time against Texas was fortunate–at least he got to see an opposing defense, even if only for a few minutes. Throwing the game throwing touchdown will also be a big boost to his confidence, essential for any QB. It’s too early to say how the offense will do under Kizer. In many ways he has the same skill sets as EG and Zaire, so that shouldn’t be much of an issue. The offense does not need to be radically changed, though they will need to make some allowances for Kizer’s inexperience until he plays more.

    But defensively, VanGorder needs to do some work. It seems to me, as long as things go as expected, the defense is potent. But I was listening to the radio broadcast and the announcers noted a number of times that the offense Virginia was playing was not was ND expected, it was not the same offense they played against UCLA. It seems VanGorder and his defense are ill-equipped to handle changes. When an opposing team brings something unexpected to the table, they need to adapt accordingly. They have the talent to do just that, but I think the defensive coaches need to be better prepared. I have not given up on VanGorder yet. The defense has shown that it can be brilliant, they just need to better prepare for the unexpected. That will be critical for the teams success going forward. The team is going to need the defense to carry its share for the remainder of the season to be successful.

    I’m not prepared to say how the team will do this year with Kizer under center. The GT game will give us a better sense of the season going forward though.

  21. I share the concerns with the defence – particularly the secondary. UVa seemed to be passing at will int he second half of the game.

    One more question: so if Kizer is now the man at QB presumably Wimbush is the back up. Doesn’t he need some actual game experience as well? What do they do if Kizer (perish the thought) goes down with an injury?

    Go Irish

  22. Besides what happened to Zaire, the other 2 notable things were 0-10 on 3rd downs and the overall play of the defense. Let’s be honest, this team will be different and the offense will need to be re-worked to fit Kizer’s strengths. It’s unfortunate DK didn’t get more reps during spring ball when EG knew he probably was not sticking around and used up that time for himself. Maybe DK turns out to be a “superb gem in the rough” and has a fantastic season as QB and leads ND to a great season. The O line really needs to step up to help to set up the other talented positions on offense to help out DK. That 0-10 on 3rd down conversion was inexcusable for what is present talent wise and that occurred primarily when MZ was still playing. It was disappointing to see a 26-14 point lead be squandered like it was by how the defense played. Aberration or signs that’s what we have coming under BVG for this season? The defensive play has to get better. It’s not like ND is completely inexperienced on their D. We will see what the true character of this Team in the upcoming weeks. If Tech rolls up 300+ yards rushing, it won’t be a good day, most likely. At this juncture, I am not writing off the season as “a bust,” as I have heard some sport pundits and even other ND fans convey, but, I don’t see a 10+ win season either. So, once again, we appear to have issues at the QB position under BK. this seems to be norm since he’s been here. I am not laying blame on Kelly for what happened to MZ, but he didn’t give DK much time in the Texas game when it was out of hand for reps. Let the journey begin for DK as QB begin and if BW gets opportunity to get reps, make sure he gets them. The coaching staff will really need to step up themselves too, a whole team effort. This could potentially go down as one of the greatest seasons ND has had or turn out maybe to be worse than 2007 as a forgettable season.

    Go IRISH!

  23. Losing to Georgia Tech will not be Kizer’s fault. This one was already going to be a loss.

    The hot seat is Van Gorder’s. and he will either show that he can actually coach (as there’s certainly enough raw talent upfront to give GT a game), or have to answer for a truly ugly loss with Navy yet to come. I hope its the former.

    If Kizer can relax,ignore the scoreboard, and just focus on his reads and the game experience, the game will have some benefit. If not….where’s the nearest bomb shelter?

  24. Kizer has the benefit of an offensive line that should provide ND with around 200 rushing yards per game. I am worried though about this third and shorts and the red zone where ND struggled during the UVa game. You would think with this line that 3rd and shorts and red zone offense would be a strength. As of now this is a offensive weakness. ND has a remedy to these woes in #88 Corey Robinson.

  25. Agree Scott. DK rose to the occasion , under fire , under pressure and delivered one of the best comeback wins in ND history. What’s more amazing is Kizer was making his first appearance in a game and it wasn’t mop up time. I liked Kizer when recruited as a dual threat QB 6’4″ and with mobility. What’s Blake Barnett doing and who cares. The big concern now is BVG and the D. Yellow Jackets are pest and need to be exterminated by any means — fly swatters , can of Raid , squishing them with cleats, whatever it takes , just kill them all. Go Irish

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