Rare is the quarterback who plays a supporting role, particularly at a program as prominent as Notre Dame. Freshman DeShone Kizer is one such anomaly.
The Fighting Irish aren’t lacking for star power. Running back C.J. Prosise has emerged as a leading Heisman Trophy contender, wide receiver Will Fuller is one of the nation’s best, and linebacker Jaylon Smith is destined for All-America recognition at season’s end.
Kizer lacks their recognition and acclaim, which stands to reason. He’s started all of five games in his Notre Dame career, and played just seven games total.
“He’s still learning,” head coach Brian Kelly said after Kizer’s 227-yard, two-touchdown performance in the Fighting Irish’s 41-31 defeat of rival USC.
But then, teammate Malik Zaire had just one start and five appearances before the 2015 season. It took all of one game this fall for Zaire to jump to the forefront of the national stage.
— IndyStar Sports (@IndyStarSports) September 11, 2015
Bullying a young Texas secondary Week 1 wasn’t reason enough on its own for pundits to start the Heisman talk around Zaire, however. Zaire’s boisterous personality and flair made him a natural star.
He also earned buzz by beating out the two-year quarterback of a BCS Championship Game participant who spent half of last season in the Heisman conversation.
DeShone Kizer’s ascent from No. 3 to No. 1 on the Fighting Irish depth chart wasn’t won. He was the beneficiary of circumstance, first through Golson’s transfer to Florida State, then Zaire’s injury sustained Week 2 at Virginia.
The events leading to Kizer taking over the Notre Dame offense have no bearing on his performance since, which has been steady with flashes of brilliance.
One such flash came in his first meaningful collegiate appearance, stepping in for Zaire at Virginia. Kizer threw two touchdown passes, including the game-winner to Fuller.
— The 5th Down Podcast (@FifthDownCFB) September 16, 2015
In making such a flashy debut, Kizer could have been pumped to the moon. But Kelly was quick to deflect attention to others in his postgame press conference, via UND.com.
“DeShone Kizer playing his first college football just says a lot about the resolve of the group we have out there…DeShone Kizer doesn’t have the experience that Malik (Zaire) has, but we can run our offense through DeShone. He has a lot of weapons around him and we saw that tonight. He has a running back and receivers.”
Kelly’s praise — or lack thereof — reads cold. However, it’s a stroke of genius in retrospect. The coach could have shifted the burgeoning Heisman chatter for Zaire onto his back-up, building a hype machine a freshman may not be prepared to face.
UCLA head coach Jim Mora did his best to downplay the chatter about Josh Rosen, but it spread like wildfire. Kelly’s contained any such blaze for Kizer.
It’s only a matter of time, however, before this star burns bright. Others will carry the torch Kelly isn’t.
I am doing so in this column, and USC interim head coach Clay Helton did so in his praise of Kizer.
“They did a nice job of late in the game [hitting] their one-on-one matchups [between wide receivers and cornerbacks],” Helton said. “You look at some of the throws they made, especially the one throw to Fuller down our boundary, how good a throw that was by Kizer, really dropping a dime right on point.”
That pass, a 45-yarder dropped into Fuller’s hands right over USC star cornerback Adoree’ Jackson, set up a late field goal that put Notre Dame’s lead out of reach.
It was the second-longest connection between Kizer and Fuller on the night.
WATCH: Fuller and Kizer strike quick on our 1st TD with a 75-yard TD. Fuller now with 8 receiving TD's this season. pic.twitter.com/8ADa3FnJcm
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) October 18, 2015
Having a target Fuller’s caliber makes a quarterback’s job considerably easier, and Kizer’s been quick to learn that.
Picking up fast is kind of his forte.
“The one thing with Kizer that I really like is that you tell him one time, and he gets it,” Kelly said per UND.com. “And he’s going to come back the next time and he’s not going to make the same mistake twice.”
As the freshman cuts down on his errors and continues honing his strengths, he’ll be too good to play a supporting role. Stardom is waiting, and it’s not far off in his future.