Calm and collected
Brian Plamondon | Friday, October 2, 2015
As practice ended Wednesday evening for the Notre Dame football team, players slowly filed off the practice fields and into the Guglielmo Athletic Complex across the street.
Sophomore starting quarterback DeShone Kizer stayed behind, however, chatting about his day at practice in front of a horde of Showtime cameras. After, he summoned freshman kicker Justin Yoon for a little extra practice — Kizer, the player on whose shoulders Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff hopes rest, is still the holder for field goals and extra points.
Other than his presence on special teams, there is little left of Kizer’s life as a backup just a few weeks ago. When junior quarterback Malik Zaire broke his ankle in the third quarter of Notre Dame’s game against Virginia, Kizer’s life changed instantaneously.
The curious part of Kizer’s ascension to the starting quarterback role at one of the most storied college football programs in the country is that, when it finally happened, Kizer didn’t really have time to process what was occurring.
“There wasn’t necessarily a transition period for me,” Kizer said Wednesday. “ … It was just here. I was in.
“ … When Malik went down, I didn’t have time to think about how bad his injury was. I mean, to be truthful, you don’t even have time to feel bad for him because you’re out there playing ball. The last thing you’re thinking about is what’s going on on the sideline. You’re trying to make sure you can win the game.”
Just a few months ago, Kizer was the third-string quarterback and an afterthought when pundits were pondering Notre Dame’s 2015 season. With Everett Golson’s summer transfer to Florida State, Kizer became the definitive backup behind Zaire. Then, three weeks ago, Kizer’s number was called. Now, it’s hard for the quarterback to go anywhere on campus without getting noticed or singled out by students and fans alike.
“People love their Irish around here,” Kizer said. “The football team is obviously a focus point on this campus, and with that being said there’s a different [way] people approach me and how they look at me. At the same time, I’m still the same goofy, tall, lanky kid who’s walking around campus, and I’m still hanging around the same kids.”
For someone like Kizer trying to stick to his familiar routine, it’s becoming harder and harder as Notre Dame racks up more wins. Where before Kizer may have had free time to do as he pleased, now his day is filled with an endless stream of questions regarding the next opponent and how he is handling himself so far. Sometimes it’s a conversation with ESPN analyst and Notre Dame fan Dick Vitale; others it’s chatting over the phone with College GameDay’s Rece Davis and Kirk Herbstreit.
So how, then, does the college sophomore get away from the frenzy that has enveloped his life in the past three weeks?
“Going into the Gug is the place to be,” Kizer said. “For me, I know that once I’m here, the only people around me are going to be those who are in the same position as me. When you’re spending your free time with the people who are going through all of this with you, it’s easier to get away because you all have the same mindset, the same worries.”
The hope is the added time spent with teammates will pay dividends on the field. Kizer’s bonding with his teammates outside of practice is just as important as working together on the field and is a way to escape the pressure, graduate student center Nick Martin said.
“[For him, just hanging] out with the guys and not always talking about football,” Martin said. “It’s kind of just getting away from it, relaxing, not having to deal with those pressures. Just talking, watching TV, playing video games.”
With pressure coming not only on the field but with added commitments and preparation that go along with being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, Kizer has shied away from giving into the hype on social media and around campus — simply because there’s not enough time.
“I only get like 30 minutes of free time at night, and during that time, I normally call my parents, call my friends and catch up on some things,” Kizer said. “There’s quite a lot of people that want to share this experience with me, and that 30 minutes at night is the only time I have to share it with them. So it’s kind of hard to get into social media and a lot of that, because it [doesn’t have an impact] on what’s going on.”
With his life making a U-turn in a matter of minutes against Virginia, Kizer is taking every change in stride. On the practice field, where Kizer has had to step up so the offense won’t miss a beat, he has impressed with his maturity and confidence in his new role.
“He has a presence about him, a command presence that, when he goes out there with the other 10 players, you don’t feel like you’re putting a freshman quarterback out there,” Irish head coach Brian 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’s what he’s brought.”
Kizer said he agreed with Kelly about his assertiveness in practice.
“I’ve taken it as a mission to be able to make myself more of a vocal leader and be able to chat with anyone and everyone on the team and understanding their strengths and weaknesses as it comes to communication,” Kizer said. “During the last couple of weeks, I’ve done a good job in learning how people are motivated … [so] who I need to leave alone, who I need to get in their ear and make sure the confidence is high.
“ … At the same time, when it comes down to it, I’m a very serious guy out on the field. I like to keep it calm; I like to keep it collected. That’s just how I’m always going to be.”
As far as this weekend goes, Kizer said he knows Clemson will be a raucous environment. But Kizer is not the only one who has confidence in his ability to perform on the biggest stage, just a few weeks into this new chapter in his life: His teammates and coaches do, too.
“I would be surprised if the moment was too big for him,” Kelly said.
For Kizer, worrying about the things he can control has become the mantra — progressing on the practice field, developing communication with his receivers, finding time to talk with his family and friends. With a win Saturday at No. 12 Clemson, Kizer’s life might change even more than it already has. All the while, the quarterback will continue to roll with the changes, keeping his routines and — most importantly — holding the football on extra points.