How DeShone Kizer ended Notre Dame’s QB battle by shredding Texas

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Watching Notre Dame play Texas Sunday night and seeing DeShone Kizer make one big play after another, throwing five TDs and running for another, I kept thinking back to the summer of 2013. I was working on my book "The QB" and spent much of that year embedded with the Elite 11 staff. Kizer was selected for the prestigious QB competition in Oregon after a strong showing at a regional in Columbus, Ohio. However, up on the Nike campus, surrounding by the nation’s other top quarterback prospects, Kizer struggled. A lot.

Each of the 18 QBs was evaluated in just about every conceivable way you could gauge a quarterback’s merits every night of the week-long camp, and Kizer was near the bottom of the bunch. In truth, I think there was only one QB ranked lower.

Obviously, the recruiting evaluation process isn’t a sure-fire way to project who stars in college and who doesn’t. There are plenty of five-stars who fizzle and two-stars who shine. The Elite 11 process is more hands-on and is conducted by guys with bigger football resumes and insights than any of the recruiting systems, yet there are plenty of examples of QBs who excelled there who went on to greatness while others fell into the margins of college football. In 2011, future Heisman winner and No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Jameis Winston shared MVP honors with Neal Burcham, who went on to SMU, played some but never had much success in college.

In 2015, Kizer started 11 games for the Irish after starter Malik Zaire was lost for the season in the second game. Kizer rallied ND to a road win at Virginia–one of three fourth-quarter comebacks he led for the Irish. He completed 63 percent of his passes and had a solid 21-10 TD-INT ratio. On Sunday night on the road in Austin, Kizer was even more impressive and made it look obvious that he would soon emerge as the top guy in the Irish quarterback battle. On Monday, I called former NFL quarterback Jordan Palmer, one of the coaches at the Elite 11 to get a better perspective on how the guy who struggled so much in Oregon has blossomed into a guy that looks he could be a Heisman contender before his time’s done in South Bend.

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"I think I have the answer," Palmer said, "I spoke to DeShone and his father to try and understand why he had made such a big jump. He had never spent any consistent time on the specifics of the quarterback position. He didn’t grow up throwing every Saturday with a local QB coach. He was always playing basketball and baseball. So (in high school) he was big enough to run around and make plays and throw the ball really hard, but he never really got to focus on specific quarterback fundamentals. He was just focusing on being an athlete.

"I think he was overwhelmed (at the Elite 11) for that reason. The majority of what we threw at him was all new stuff. For some guys, it’s just little elements of the playbook are new. For others it’s taking a 5-step drop from under center is new. With everything we throw at these kids, some spend time just trying to keep their head above water. He could always throw it and he was a big-time athlete, so that foundation was always there."

Kizer actually came out to California this offseason to work with Palmer. "I had no idea about how talented he really is," he said. "I watched him play a couple of his games at Notre Dame last season and I thought he made some plays and he’s in a good system. When he came out here, I was blown away with how much better he’s gotten and how accelerated his learning curve has been over such a short amount of time.

"I’d say he’s been locked-in and focused on solely quarterback for about 24 months. I can’t believe how much better he’s gotten, and it’s a testament to Brian Kelly and his staff. It’s also scary to see where he could go in his development."

Coming out of high school in 2014, Kizer was ranked as the nation’s No. 12 "pro-style" quarterback prospect behind Kyle Allen (Houston); Will Grier (WVU); Keller Chryst (Stanford); David Cornwell (Alabama), Jacob Park (Iowa State); Drew Barker (Kentucky), Brad Kaaya (Miami), Sean White (Auburn), Clayton Thorson (Northwestern), Caleb Henderson (Maryland) and K.J. Carta Samuels (Washington). Of that group, several have transferred, others have struggled to get playing time. Palmer, who studied and worked with almost all of those other 11 quarterbacks, said he’d have ranked Kizer ahead of only a few of them coming out of high school.

"I would’ve put him behind a lot of those other guys too–at the time," he said. "Everything was new for him. He was learning how to drop. It’s difficult to come into a drill and do as well if you’re learning far more elementary stuff than the other kids around you. At the time, he was doing basketball, baseball, academics, and he didn’t have a private quarterbacks coach throughout those years. His QB game wasn’t getting the same attention as a lot of other high schools QBs. It’s obvious that focusing on football and getting to play for Mike Sanford and coach Kelly’s staff has been the tipping point for him. "

(Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports)

Kizer has been coached very well, and Notre Dame quarterbacks coach/offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, himself a former Boise State QB, deserves a lot of credit. "He does," said Palmer. "I’ve had (Kizer) on the board a lot. He knows a lot of football."

Palmer spent almost a decade in the NFL. He said the 6-4, 230-pound Kizer has all the tools to be one of the first picks of the NFL Draft.

"He’s got a hose, a big-time NFL arm, and it comes out quick," he said. "But it’s also his competitive temperament in game and I love his demeanor. Watching that game (Sunday) night, it was like watching (NBA star) Chris Paul. His face never changes. DeShone’s face never changed from when he scored to when Malik was in the game to when Texas scored to when they were down 17 points, it was all the exact same. I think that is just being locked in. He has a supreme level of confidence for a guy of his age. He’s always been the best in all three sports and now he’s channeling all of that into being the quarterback at Notre Dame.

"I think he has the awareness to see the field, the athletic ability to extend the play and the arm strength to make all the throws, but what I think really sets him apart right now is his commitment to absolutely learning the game. He can do all those things but he’s also trying to read the play correctly and get the ball out on time. Then, look at that touchdown that he threw in overtime on that screen. People will go, ‘Oh, it was only a screen,’ but he double-clutched on that throw and actually that is really hard to do–to go to throw, stop and then jump again and layer it over somebody."

Palmer isn’t the only one with an NFL pedigree sold on Kizer. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah, who attended Notre Dame’s game Sunday night, told me Kizer has incredible pocket poise and wrote that the Notre Damer "showed why he belongs in the conversation when it comes to the top QBs in college football."

Of course, first, he needs to be named the starter. My hunch is that’ll happen soon.