Trip to Clemson represents biggest moment of DeShone Kizer’s career

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DeShone Kizer is Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, a scenario that six months ago would’ve shocked even Kizer himself. The sophomore quarterback has not just emerged from a sea of self-doubt that engulfed him this spring, he’s shown a resiliency and on-field demeanor that have people mixing him up for a grizzled veteran, not a redshirt freshman who has started just two football games.

Kizer was an unlikely hero against Virginia, rallying the Irish with a game-winning touchdown pass to Will Fuller that stole a victory from the Cavaliers.  He followed that relief appearance up with two solid home starts, giving Brian Kelly a consistent performance from his quarterback as the offense continued to churn, all while Kizer’s comfort level seems to exponentially grow.

But with all apologies to the Yellow Jackets and Minutemen, Notre Dame’s trip to Clemson is another beast. Asked to lead his teammates into Death Valley, a place where opponents have only emerged with victories twice since the 2012 season, Kizer will have the weight of Irish nation on his shoulders as he prepares to lead Notre Dame to their third 5-0 start in four seasons.

For some, the moment could become too large. But Notre Dame’s head coach believes his second-year quarterback will be ready.

“He has a presence about him, a commanding presence that, when he goes out there with the other ten players, you don’t feel like you’re putting a freshman quarterback out there,” Kelly said.

“I see that every day he goes out there, he takes control of that offensive unit. It’s not meek. It’s not weak. It’s a presence that he brings when he goes out there, and I think that that’s what he’s brought.”

That Kizer finds himself filled with confidence is a credit not just to the quarterback, but to the coaching staff and teammates that have helped rebuild him. Six months ago, Kizer was closer to rock bottom than the leader of the Irish offense.

The odd-man out as Malik Zaire and Everett Golson battled for the starting job, Kizer even began to wonder if football was for him.

“Going into the summer, I literally hit rock bottom,” Kizer told Jac Collinsworth for our Stay Gold podcast. “I mean, I wasn’t throwing the ball well. I was the third-string quarterback. Am I even playing the right sport? I was thinking that to myself—why did I even play football?”

“I went one-for-five for three yards in the spring game. I got a safety, what dual-threat quarterback goes backwards and gets tackled in the end zone? I was so down. Finally I was like, ‘Look. There’s no more redshirt next year. There’s no more Everett Golson versus Malik Zaire. There was nothing.’ The only thing that was stopping me from playing was myself every time.”

Kizer built from that moment, working with new position coach Mike Sanford to reconstruct his confidence. He also fed off the work his teammates put in. A year after some competitive uneasiness in the position room, Kizer’s kinship with Zaire and freshman Brandon Wimbush was a significant change that’s been noticed by players and coaches alike.

“Those guys spend a lot of time together. Really it’s a room that I sit in every day and I can tell you that they have a very close relationship. When Malik went down, the first guy that was in the room to see him was Brandon and DeShone,” Kelly said Sunday. “It’s just a group that it’s a bit unique. Last year it wasn’t like that but this is a different group of kids, and they are pretty close.”

With Zaire down, it’s now Kizer’s position to carry. And while he’s still a first-year player seeing and doing things for the first time, Kelly’s confident that Kizer—along with the help of a dominant offensive line and explosive running attack—can do enough to go out and win this weekend.

“He’s learning along the way. There’s things that he hasn’t seen before. There will be mistakes that he makes this weekend as well,” Kelly said. “But I think that it’s his presence that allows the other ten players to have a great deal of confidence that they can go out and be successful.”