BY DAN McGRATH — For the Sun-Times
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — As spring practice wound down at Notre Dame last April, DeShone Kizer saw himself spending fall Saturdays in a red ballcap making exaggerated hand signals along the sideline.
Not functioning as the triggerman in the 4-0 start Notre Dame achieved with Saturday’s 62-27 dismantling of outmanned UMass. Kizer passed for two touchdowns and ran for a third in 2 1⁄2 quarters as the Irish scored 27 points in less than nine minutes and ran for 457 yards. Their season grows more intriguing by the week despite an epidemic of knee and leg injuries.
Kizer, a sophomore, finished spring ball as the No. 3 quarterback on ND’s depth chart. He knew his role; third and fourth-string QBs are the red-capped conduits through which Irish coach Brian Kelly transmits play calls to his starter.
Things changed for him in May. Everett Golson, a two-year incumbent who took the Irish to the national championship game in 2012, chose to spend his final season of eligibility elsewhere, reasoning that Florida State’s pro-style offense was better suited to his NFL aspirations.
Golson was known to offset magical plays with mystifying turnovers that turned Kelly’s Irish face crimson. He was also leery of a timeshare with Malik Zaire, a left-handed dart thrower who emerged as co-No.1 with some clever play in Notre Dame’s Music City Bowl victory over LSU on Dec. 30. Golson couldn’t shake the slippery sophomore in spring practice.
Zaire was the obvious starter going into the season, but Kizer was told to put the ballcap aside and pay attention in case something happened. In the second game of the season, at Virginia, something did. Something gruesome.
Zaire’s leg got caught under a Virginia defender as he was pulled down on a third-quarter running play. He shattered his ankle and is out for the season.
One of the most storied jobs in college football suddenly belonged to a 19-year-old neophyte from Toledo, Ohio. As Irish Nation bemoaned this cruel twist of fate, Kizer looked ready for the moment, pulling out a 3427 win over Virginia by throwing a 39yard touchdown strike to Will Fuller with 12 seconds remaining.
Kizer, sturdily built at 64 and 230 pounds, was more confident and demonstrably better as the starter against Georgia Tech, completing 21 of 30 for 242 yards in a deceptively easy 30-22 win.
UMass was more like a glorified scrimmage, but Kizer was in total control, hitting 15 of 22 passes for 207 yards, running nine times for 42 yards and needing just 1:21 to direct a 10-play, 74-yard scoring drive to close the first half.
Kelly said Kizer was able to “selfcorrect” on some throws he missed early. “He knows what todo and how to do it. He showed great poise and presence out there.”
Kizer said he didn’t have time to be nervous when he was summoned to replace the fallen Zaire, but his confidence rises with his playing time.
“With experience comes comfort and with comfort comes success,” Kizer said. “With the way our offensive line is playing and the weapons we have, no one is going to outscore us. We have to play with that swagger. Don’t think too much. Just be decisive and let it rip.”
Though the NFL claims to operate with a “next man up” mentality, college football’s larger rosters create more next-man possibilities. Notre Dame expects to keep rolling with Kizer in for Zaire, just as Ohio State rolled all the way to the national championship with No. 3 quarterback Cardale Jones taking snaps last season.
The Bears, by contrast, are riding a wave of hopelessness to Seattle, facing the Seahawks with poor Jimmy Clausen in for enigmatic Jay Cutler. The Dallas Cowboys are praying for divine intervention to keep them upright while Brandon Weeden subs for Tony Romo.
Notre Dame has enough speed, savvy and talent on both sides of the ball that Kizer should keep the line moving, and Clemson, USC and Stanford are the only tough outs left on the schedule. But tomorrow is promised to no one. Zaire will return with two years of eligibility remaining. True freshman Brandon Wimbush is as green as the leprechaun’s knickers, but he’s said to combine Zaire’s fast-twitch maneuverability with Kizer’s big arm. Wimbush scored on a 58-yard run and had 100 yards worth of pass completions nullified by officials’ calls during mop-up duty Saturday.
“He’s not there yet,” Kelly said of his current backup, “but he’s coming.”
Three capable quarterbacks. What a delightful problem.