DeShone Kizer, young receiving corps lead Irish win
R.J. Stempak | Saturday, September 10, 2016
In his first week this season as the lone starter, junior quarterback DeShone Kizer delivered as No. 18 Notre Dame’s leader, manufacturing three scoring drives of 75 yards or more on the way to a 39-10 victory over Nevada. Kizer lead the Irish (1-1) with consistency and poise in his 15-for-18 passing performance, one Irish head coach Brian Kelly praised — especially his improvement near the goal line.
“I think you can see this more than anything else, in the red zone, where now he’s had two touchdowns in the red zone where he’s been really patient, hit his third and fourth option down there,” Kelly said. “I think that’s showing itself to a higher completion percentage down there.”
In the red zone, Kizer went 4-for-4, leading the team to three touchdowns and a field goal. He notes his experience from last season has much to do with making him more comfortable in the red zone.
“You got to understand that in the red zone that if the first option is not there, go to the second or third,” Kizer said. “If the third isn’t open, don’t force it. That was my biggest fault last year.”
Without a clear leading receiver, Kizer’s development as a leader may be more important than ever for the Irish. Through two games, he has shown improvement in his patience and decision-making, and according to Kelly, it is part of the strategy for Kizer to have high-percentage games.
“We’ll continue to emphasize that with a high-percentage completion, again, from DeShone,” Kelly said. “That’s kind of who we’ll be most of the year, high-percentage completions, move the ball around to a number of receivers. There is not one guy that is going to end up with 100 catches. You’re going to see a lot of guys touch the ball.”
A potential problem with spreading the ball around, though, is Notre Dame’s inexperience at receiver.
Of the seven players that caught passes against Nevada, three hauled in their first career reception: junior Corey Holmes, freshman Kevin Stepherson and sophomore Chris Finke. Stepherson also nabbed his first career touchdown Saturday.
“We felt like it was important to get Corey and Stepherson and those kids some touches early, get them some confidence,” Kelly said. “If they got some confidence, they’d make some plays for us. Obviously, getting Stepherson the touchdown catch was a big catch for him, getting some confidence there. But, no, there was a concerted effort to get [the young receivers] the football.”
DeShone Kizer echoes his coach’s words on his young receiving corps, acknowledging that touches are the only way his receivers can gain confidence.
“There’s no favoritism when it comes to receivers,” Kizer said. “We’re going to be able to spread the ball around. Young guys can make plays. Those guys need to make big plays. They’re going to develop. We’re not going to refer to them as ‘young guys’ any longer.”
At the forefront of the receiving corps, sophomores Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders have emerged as Kizer’s favorites. St. Brown contributed six catches for 85 yards, while Sanders added five for 46 and a touchdown. Despite their inexperience, these two rising stars radiate confidence, allowing them to play more like veterans.
“It all starts on the practice field,” St. Brown said. “I just needed to get on the practice field. If you put in the work, [being on the practice field] boosts your confidence and that translates to the field.”
Sanders said he enjoys the opportunity to work in an offense where no receiver is preferred over the other.
“I love it,” Sanders said about the offense. “It gets to show that everyone, no matter who you are, you get to make plays. I think we showcased that today. Just showing everyone that when you get the ball in your hands, you can be a baller.
“ … The biggest thing is just being a baller. EQ is a baller, whoever is in there is a baller. You just want to show people that you can make plays.”
The young “ballers” got their first true taste of success as a unit this week against Nevada, but a tougher test will come next week against No. 12 Michigan State.
Notre Dame’s season may rest on how fast the young receivers keep settling in.