Man of the moment: How DeShone Kizer came to be the key to Notre Dame's College Football Playoff hopes
SOUTH BEND, Ind.—DeShone Kizer's mind went blank. With 54 seconds remaining in the third quarter of Notre Dame's game at Virginia on Sept. 12, the quarterback ceased to process. He remembers only the motions of the sideline, the choreography of catastrophe. He recalls Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly barking for him to warm up, an equipment manager materializing with his helmet. Throw, throw and soon enough he was trotting onto the field.
Six weeks later, he rattles off these events, his genesis story in laundry-list form. He has no memory of how he felt—or if he felt at all—as he stood five yards downfield while his starting quarterback's ankle snapped. "I blacked out," Kizer says. "There was never really a butterflies moment or a nervous moment. It happened too quickly. I was just out there. It was time to go."
When the 6' 4", 230-pound redshirt freshman took over as Notre Dame's quarterback, the then-ninth-ranked Irish were leading Virginia 19–14 on the road at Scott Stadium. Kizer's in-game experience to that point was limited to meaningless reps the week before against Texas and a touchdown pass on a faked field goal in the first quarter against the Cavaliers. Just four months earlier, he'd been an afterthought: third on the depth chart, wondering if he'd ever play, if he shouldn't just quit or move on.
On his first snap that afternoon, Kizer handed the ball to senior running back C.J. Prosise, who took it 24 yards for a touchdown. Series over. A breath. Lucidity. As Kizer emerged from the haze, Kelly talked him through the game plan. He got on the phone with offensive coordinator Mike Sanford. Teammates looked on as their kid quarterback, at times unsteady during his first year with the program, remained calm. "The way he carried himself on the sideline, my whole perspective on him changed in an instant," Prosise says. "He's ready to go. He's not shocked. He's not scared."
The third quarter ticked to the fourth, and as a Virginia scoring drive ate up 2:12 of clock, Kizer continued to collect himself. The game plan wouldn't change much, he learned. Notre Dame would rely on Prosise and veteran receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown to take the heat off him. When the offense took the field, though, it stalled. Punt. Virginia fumble. Punt. Virginia touchdown. Suddenly, the Irish were down 27–26 with 1:54 left and a quarterback of last resort under center—yet they remained unshaken. "Listen, we trust you," center Nick Martin, a fifth-year senior, recalls telling Kizer. "You've got to know that, first and foremost."
Notre Dame took the field at its own 20-yard line. The impossible-to-cover Fuller was Kizer's target on three consecutive throws, but after a pair of incompletions, Notre Dame was left with what could have been its last down. From deep in his own territory, facing fourth-and-two, Kizer scrambled four yards to move the chains. A few plays later, with 12 seconds remaining and the ball at Virginia's 39-yard line, it was time to take a shot. As Martin snapped the ball, two Virginia defenders rushed off the edge. Prosise resolved to pick one off but got in the way of both. With Fuller open down the left sideline, Kizer tossed a gem. Barely a blink later, Notre Dame was 2–0, on its way to a 7–1 start (its sole loss came at top-ranked Clemson, 24–22, on Oct. 3) that has it perched at No. 5 in the initial College Football Playoff rankings. Next up: Pittsburgh, which dropped out of the AP Poll this week after a loss to North Carolina but has tested Notre Dame in recent seasons; the Panthers forced triple-overtime against the Irish in 2012 and beat them in '13.
Without Kizer's late-game heroics at Virginia, the Irish would be a two-loss team with only the slimmest hopes of gaining a playoff berth. And in the weeks since that 34–27 win over the Cavaliers, the quarterback has fielded the same questions. How did you know to throw a deep ball with 12 seconds left down the sideline? How did you have the guts? His answer is simple: "They called the play. It wasn't my choice."
Kizer is used to that, to doing as he's told, to taking the logical path. Life choices have been play calls—execute, or else. He did, always, until he couldn't.
When Kizer was in elementary school, his father sat him down. The boy was already an athlete, a stellar basketball player who loved baseball and enjoyed football. And though his son was years away from high school, Derek Kizer told him he would have two options upon graduation. He could enlist in the military, or he could go to college, with one caveat: He'd have to pay for it himself, with an athletic scholarship. "The way that my dad parented me was everything was geared toward getting yourself into college and not paying a dime to do it," Kizer says. "I knew I didn't want to shoot anyone, and I don't want to get shot."
So sports it was, but no one ever imagined football. Derek had played basketball at Bowling Green from 1987–91, and hoops made the family tick. "That's what we knew," Kizer says. "That's what we talked. That's what we did." From YMCA ball in his hometown of Toledo, Ohio, to AAU, he was a point guard who lived to take the last-second shot. But when he moved to a heavyweight football league in seventh grade and took the job under center, Kizer got tough. He took hits, he hit back, and high schools noticed. He still loved basketball, but football garnered attention, and it was time to make a decision.
This wasn't a matter of love or passion. It was a problem of practicality, of money and scholarships and the business of college sports. Despite their insistence that they couldn't and wouldn't pay for college (Mindy Kizer is a court bailiff; Derek a police officer), Kizer's parents were so committed to grooming their son into an educated and elite athlete that they'd spring for private high school. When Central Catholic, a local football powerhouse, came inquiring about their son, Derek and Mindy decided to bite. Football it was.
It didn't take long for the family to feel validated in its choice. Central coach Greg Dempsey was so impressed with Kizer that he pulled him up to practice with the varsity as a freshman. "At that point, in my time at Central Catholic, we'd never had a Division I quarterback, especially one that the big Power Five [programs] wanted," Dempsey says. "I thought, this must be what those guys look like as freshmen in high school." Given his rare blend of athleticism, size, arm strength and intellect, Kizer had offers from Bowling Green, Toledo and Syracuse before he took first varsity snap as a sophomore. As a junior, he threw for 1,611 yards with 17 touchdowns en route to an Ohio Division II state title, and by the end of that season he was deciding between Michigan State, North Carolina and Northwestern. The three schools had offered the same three quarterbacks: Kizer, Chris Durkin and Clayton Thorson. As Kizer deliberated, Thorson pledged to Northwestern. Then Durkin committed to Michigan State. (He later decommitted in favor of Virginia Tech.) Kizer felt cornered. As he explored other options, Tennessee offered. Then LSU happened to be recruiting in the area and gave the quarterback a look. Its coaches loved what they saw. Another offer. Then another. Eventually, Kizer found himself deciding between playing for Les Miles and Alabama's Nick Saban.
Something nagged at him, though. He loved the Midwest, and he wondered about Notre Dame. The program had taken a look months before but never followed up, so Kizer made a call to Chuck Martin, the Irish's offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the time. Martin, now the head coach at Miami (Ohio), agreed to watch Kizer throw.
When Martin arrived in Toledo, Kizer was at peak confidence. Every session he'd completed had gone off without a hitch. But that morning was chilly, and the high school junior threw ducks. He remembers two, maybe three, good passes. Still, Martin's interest was piqued. He looked through Kizer's updated tape and saw a marked improvement from the first time Notre Dame had scouted the quarterback. In spite of the bad day, the Irish extended a scholarship shortly thereafter. Their 2012 starter, Everett Golson, had just been suspended a semester because of an academic violation, and though they had Malik Zaire lined up to enroll in the fall of '13, Martin and Kelly felt more of a need at the position than they had a few months earlier.
It didn't take Kizer long to decide; he visited South Bend and committed to the Irish two days later on June 11, 2013. "DeShone's the type of kid meant for a school like Notre Dame," Dempsey says. "He handles the big stage very well. He likes pressure. He likes being held accountable."
Kizer leases his car. It's a Chrysler 200C sedan, and he is about 5,000 miles ahead of the pace his contract recommends. The car is parked on Notre Dame's campus these days, driven only when necessary as Kizer tries to keep mileage down. Last spring, it served as his second home.
In late February, the quarterback's then-girlfriend, Elli Thatcher, was becoming increasingly concerned about a bump on her neck. Kizer knew she was seeking a medical opinion, and on the morning of March 3 his phone buzzed. Thatcher, his high school sweetheart who was by then attending Ohio State, had gotten a CT scan and was awaiting the results. Later in the day, she called again. Kizer, in the middle of a study session, was unable to answer. Thatcher tried several more times, and when the two finally spoke she broke the news: There was a 6-cm. tumor (about the size of a baseball) in her neck, near the base of her skull.
For the rest of the spring, Kizer shuttled back and forth between South Bend and Columbus, Ohio, where Thatcher lived and was preparing for surgery at James Cancer Hospital. Coming off his redshirt season, the quarterback was supposed to be focused on spring practice. Everything he'd ever been taught told him to focus on the game, but his gut screamed to ignore it, to worry about Thatcher, to get in the car. So he did. "I think there was a point in time where I went five weeks in a row, where every weekend I would hop in the car, drive down four hours, come back and go back to school," Kizer says. "There was always something. When you're dealing with something as serious as a head and neck tumor, there's always a big appointment you've got to be at or some kind of information you're going to get."
Meanwhile, he was beginning to get consistent reps in spring ball. He was supposed to be developing, proving that what he'd learned after a season on the sidelines would translate into tangible improvements. But Kizer remained apart from his team, something of a mystery to many of the offensive starters with whom he was supposed to be building chemistry. From Thatcher's blog (to which Kizer contributed), teammates knew about the situation. They were unlikely to see their third-string quarterback on campus in his free time. He'd be 271 miles away in Columbus.
Eventually, doctors set Thatcher's surgery for April 16. The procedure would be intricate, with the possibility of complications, and it would take place two days before Notre Dame's spring game. Kizer didn't think twice about his priorities. He would spend the time leading up to that date with Thatcher, football be damned. "Although my physical presence is out on the practice field and in the meeting room, my mind never leaves her," he wrote on the blog on March 25. "I thought that maybe football would be my get away [sic] but in all honestly it becomes some of the worst times of sadness."
The surgery took longer than expected, 17 hours from start to finish. When doctors emerged and declared they had removed the entire tumor, it was after midnight on Friday. The high-risk procedure, which could have induced a stroke or other life-altering complications, had gone off with relatively few consequences. (Thatcher woke with no feeling in her lower left leg, but is still able to walk.) At that news, Kizer broke down in relief. His mom watched as he left the assembled family and friends, wandered into a nearby hospital room and fell apart. The next day, he drove back to South Bend for the spring game, which he finished with one completion on five attempts. The lowlight came when he was tackled for a safety while scrambling in his own end zone. If he was competing with Zaire to back up Golson, at that point he was the only one who thought so. "That was the first time I was not into football," Kizer says.
Before Thatcher's illness, Kizer had never dealt with a sick family member or close friend. His life had been prescribed toward an explicit goal: study, practice football, run with the right crowd, practice some more. His greatest stressor had been choosing a college, and his choice was among the nation's premier programs.
When Kizer picked Notre Dame, he knew he was walking into a competition. He could have gone to a smaller program and waltzed into a starting role, but that wasn't what his upbringing had conditioned him to want. When he arrived in South Bend, it was with the expectation that he'd have to earn his spot and the knowledge that he could at least outsmart most challengers. "[This is] what most freshman are doing: What does this word mean? What is this play, from a simple standpoint? What are the routes? What are the protections?" Kizer says. "I wanted to know why we were calling the play."
As the spring wore on, Kizer felt pulled away from football to Thatcher's side, and he began to question his commitment to the sport. Teammates, he thought, saw him as a smart player, but only as a backup who could step in and manage a game if the quarterbacks above him on the depth chart went down. That grated at him, and throughout Thatcher's illness he turned to his parents. He asked his mom about transferring or switching sports. At school, he contemplated joining the baseball team and even tagged along to the batting cages. And thanks to the cruelest of timing, by the point he knew Thatcher would recover to good health, there was no football left with which to redeem his poor showing.
At the end of the spring, Kizer and Thatcher amicably broke up, and for the first time in months the quarterback stepped back from the commotion his life had become. After exams, he returned home to Toledo for a break and resolved that the summer would be a blank slate. Five months later, he discusses this analytically. There were no more distractions, he says, no more reasons to think about anything but his game. This is a 19-year-old who professes to have no hobbies. There is no time, he says. In high school, any free moment he had was spent perfecting other sports: tennis, golf, Ping-Pong. Now he plays football, goes to class and attends meetings. He is so bad at video games that he has given up trying to learn.
Kizer's recommitment to football coincided with Golson's transfer to Florida State in late May. Going into 2015, Zaire had attempted a total of 35 collegiate passes, and though the redshirt sophomore was the presumed heir to the job, especially after leading Notre Dame to a 31–28 win over LSU in December's Music City Bowl, Kizer didn't rule himself out. All summer, he bucked conventional backup duties. Instead of taking reps solely with walk-ons and freshmen, he pushed for time with Fuller and Brown. "Look," he told the veterans, "I'm here to compete for the starting spot. I need to have my timing down with you as much as you need to have your timing down with Malik."
"I came here to win championships as the quarterback of Notre Dame," Kizer continues. "I was never going to accept the fact that I was going to be a backup. I fought in camp, and I studied my butt off and I tried my hardest to make sure that I was going to be the guy."
Martin, Notre Dame's center, recalls being impressed with Kizer's efforts. Still, Kelly and staff never implied there was any quarterback competition. For all of Kizer's efforts to assert himself, he remained unfamiliar to many of the starters with whom he is now playing. "Honestly, I kind of thought DeShone was a weird guy," Prosise says, laughing.
He qualifies: Kizer is unique, even if Prosise can't explain exactly why.
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In Notre Dame's come-from-behind 41–31 victory over USC on Oct. 17, Kizer was 15 of 24 for 227 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It wasn't a Heisman Trophy-caliber outing, but for a guy making his fifth start (in a rivalry game after exam week), the night was an accomplishment. The postgame praise Kizer garnered, though, focused on his composure rather than his stats. "That's north of confident, south of cocky," Kelly said of his quarterback's performance going into the fourth quarter down seven points. Kizer erased that deficit, and then, with nearly eight minutes remaining in the game and the Irish up a touchdown, he knew he needed more. He opened Notre Dame's second-to-last offensive series by telling Fuller he'd see him in the end zone. Cue a 45-yard completion. The quarterback's prediction wasn't quite right—the series ended with a field goal—but his belief has been enough to impress coaches and older teammates alike.
Through eight games this season, Kizer has completed 65.1% of his passes for 1,669 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions while also rushing for 318 yards. Over that time, he has grown from an unknown into a leader, albeit one upon whom coaches don't want to pile too much responsibility. Martin has been encouraged by his quarterback's willingness to take constructive criticism, and he says that from the first snap Kizer commanded the offense like a much older player. "He'll come up to me [and ask], 'What can I do better? Am I communicating with you? Am I being loud enough?'" Martin says. "He's loud. He's confident. How the quarterback tells the line a call, that's big."
Still, Kizer is adjusting. Two months ago, he was a nonfactor. Now every college football fan in America knows his name. It is his first semester in Notre Dame's rigorous business school, and his IT management class stumps him at times. Add in the extra meetings and media obligations, and his grades have dipped. Fortunately, the team's bye week fell at the same time as its fall break, and Kizer's plan was to go home to Toledo to get his studies in order.
But first, he dropped his wallet. When he retraced his steps, the cards and license were intact—the cash, not so much. He was out $170. Then, he discovered his car had been towed. He parked it off campus since he was using it so little, unbeknownst to him in an illegal spot. It took $200 to get it back, and by the time Kizer returned to his parents' house he was out his spending money for the month. He resolved to work a job in landscaping over the break.
Mindy objected. Her son's knee and wrist were already banged up, and the bye is a time for rest. God forbid he get hurt trimming a tree or hauling mulch. She wanted him to focus on school, but she compromised. Knowing her son needed money, she offered to pay him landscaping wages for household chores, and between organizing his business school study plans, Kizer spent his break power washing and staining his parents' deck. "He's not handed everything," Mindy says, and her son knows it. The glamour of following in the steps of Notre Dame legends like Joe Montana and Joe Theismann has not come easy.
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Kizer has always been a perfectionist. That dalliance with a Ping-Pong hobby? It came about only so he could beat a friend who once topped him. The aversion to video games? It's because he has never been very good, and can't see himself getting better, meaning there is no place for NBA 2K or Madden in his life.
That mentality translates to the football field. As soon as he finishes reliving that long touchdown pass to Fuller at Virginia, Kizer lays into his performance earlier in that fourth quarter. "If we're not driving down and putting up points, that's an unsuccessful drive," he says, critiquing the two series—one netting 26 yards, the other –3—that ended in punts. "If we're going to go out and be an undefeated team for the rest of the season, it's going to be on me to be perfect every single play." Kizer is his own worst critic, explaining all the things he doesn't know and hasn't seen before he'll concede the improvements he has made.
However, early in his tenure as a starter, Kizer began to question the way he channeled that perfectionism. When he'd get frustrated after a poor drive, he would show it. He wondered how the rest of the offense perceived how he flushed the disappointment from his system. "[Teammates might have thought], this little freshman … getting upset with himself, maybe banging his helmet on the sideline after a bad drive," Kizer says. "They would get nervous. Oh, gosh, is he going to lose it? Is he going to be a guy who becomes a mental headcase?"
With that in mind, the quarterback has tried to relax, or at least to explain to teammates why perfectionism might work for him. "One of my biggest upsides is also one of my greatest downfalls," he says.
That standards to which Kizer holds himself will no doubt be tested as the Irish play down the stretch; even if they run the table against Pitt, Boston College and Wake Forest, they'll need to defeat No. 11 Stanford on the road Nov. 28 to have a hope at securing a playoff berth. And it's more than just the postseason that's at stake this winter. Once healthy, Zaire will have two years of eligibility remaining, and going into spring ball he'll have as good a shot at winning the Notre Dame starting job in 2016 as Kizer.
So, the player who has always wanted to control everything, to refine the game at whose mercy he exists, will throw up his hands. He'll remember the pain of last spring, when he thought he might lose a person he loved and realized he loved the game that was slipping away. Football was once a means to an end, and now it's a choice. It's worth a B in IT management and the smell of deck stain clinging to his clothes. It's worth forgetting about perfect, blacking out and playing loose. That may not be how DeShone Kizer got here, but it's how he'll stay.