DeShone Kizer: I can be greatest quarterback ever to play in NFL – USA TODAY
USA TODAY Sports’ Tom Pelissero examines the 5 quarterback prospects that have the best chance of being selected in the first round of the NFL Draft.
USA TODAY Sports
SOUTH BEND, Ind. – DeShone Kizer paused the video and rattled off everything that would have to be perfect for him to run the play as called in Notre Dame’s opener last season against Texas.
The defensive tackle is in the correct spot, but not the Longhorns’ best defender, a linebacker who’s in blitz position off the edge of the formation, right where the run is supposed to go.
“So now I’m up there checking the play,” Kizer told USA TODAY Sports, letting the tape roll again and watching himself make the change from his seat at the back of the Fighting Irish quarterbacks meeting room. “Instead of running at Malik Jefferson, let’s run it inside where I’m away from him. That’s exactly what we get to. So now we’re inside zone, I read that end, we cut back off of him and we’re off to the races.”
No quarterback prospect in next week’s NFL draft has been picked apart quite like Kizer since he declared in the wake of Notre Dame’s 4-8 finish and his own uneven play. Depending whom you ask inside the league, he could be just the fourth or fifth QB taken after North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and Cal’s Davis Webb. But if you want to buy Kizer as a worthy first-round pick, this is a good place to start.
In the spread offense era of college football, where most coaches keep things simple for players and try to win with pure speed and precision, Kizer had what former Irish offensive coordinator Mike Sanford calls a “really rare” level of control – the ability to not only choose and manipulate protections, but manipulate the calls themselves. Run to run. Run to pass. Pass to run. And not just a “kill” call to a predetermined alternative. The playbook was at Kizer’s disposal.
Of course, that can cause problems when you’re running with a bunch of freshman receivers trying to remember hand signals and route depths with the game on the line. (Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly simplified things late in the season for a reason.) But Kizer has left little doubt he has the mental bandwidth required of NFL quarterbacks. And for a stretch during his nearly two seasons as the starter, Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds), skills and production in that complicated system suggested he should be a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick.
“Name a college quarterback who goes into the game-plan meetings on Monday and throws his notes at the coaches,” Kizer said. “No one else game plans the way I do. No one else prepares the way I do. No one else knows football the way I do. No one else is as big as I am. No one else is as powerful a runner as I am. Pat Mahomes might throw the ball 80 yards and I can only throw the ball 72, but I guarantee he can’t throw an out route the way I can.
“No one else can do what I can do. And I’ve truly figured out in this (draft) process, if I can maximize all my potential in every aspect of the game – this is bold – I do have the ability to be the greatest quarterback to ever play. Imagine taking (Tom) Brady’s intellect and Brady’s preparation and putting it on a guy with Cam Newton’s body. Why can’t I be the greatest? The only thing stopping me from it is me. That’s what’s driving me now.”
The concerns about Kizer
There are two primary threads of concern among NFL scouts and coaches about Kizer – one he mostly agrees with, and another he strongly rejects.
The first is accuracy, which hasn’t been good enough. Kizer completed 62.9% of his passes as a redshirt freshman in 2015 and just 58.7% in 2016, when he and coaches kept trying to adjust his mechanics. He can pull up three examples of the exact same play from the same game on tape and his footwork looks a little different in each of them. Operating mostly from the shotgun, Kizer wasn’t even consistent on which foot was back at the snap, and didn’t know it until he saw the tape. He admits he had other worries as things unraveled – competing with junior Malik Zaire, getting booed going into the tunnel, getting benched.
Since December, Kizer has worked with a QB coach, Zac Robinson, on honing his identity as a passer. It was ugly when he tried to show off the adjustments at the scouting combine in early March. (“I started over-exaggerating,” he said.) His pro day was better, though his ball placement still wasn’t perfect. He has continued to concentrate on not over-striding. In private workouts with a half-dozen NFL teams, Kizer said, he’s throwing the best of his life.
“I figured out I’m at my best when my left hand’s locked in, my body’s balanced, I’ve got a little knee bend in my front leg as I throw the ball, I take a short step and I rip it,” he said.
The second concern is less quantifiable. Going back to the fall, when Kelly didn’t give Kizer all the practice reps or really commit to him until after an October benching against Stanford, the word getting back to NFL scouts is there may be a problem with desire. Is Kizer committed to doing what it takes to be great? Or is he more concerned with living the life and getting the spoils of being good?
It’s no accident Kizer avoided marketing deals, stayed off social media and did few interviews like this one over the past four months. He and his agents wanted to make clear he was focused solely on football. But the questions have persisted.
Part of the perception, Kizer thinks, stems from one of his regrets last season: he wasn’t visible enough as a leader. He’s naturally introverted in his preparation. Yes, he was often the first one out of the locker room. But he says that was to get away from the high emotions of practice. He’d see his tutor, do his homework and then come back late at night, when he could dim the lights in this QB room, put on country music and let himself become the player he was watching on the screen, alone. He also understands that if young teammates never saw him watching film, it’d be tough to convince them to.
“For (anyone) to say I don’t love the game or I don’t have the passion to be great – go spend one day in the Kizer household, I dare you,” Kizer said. “My dad told me when I was 12, quote: ‘I’m not paying for your college. Either you’re going to the military or you’re getting an athletic scholarship.’ And Lord knows I was never killing anyone and I wasn’t getting killed. So sports have always been my life. Winning has always been my life. I’ve never been a loser until this last year.”
So how would life be if he’s not great in the NFL?
“I’d be miserable,” Kizer said. “I’d be out there grinding my ass off until I was. I don’t know anything other than that.”
The answers will keep coming
While Kelly raised eyebrows a couple weeks ago by telling SiriusXM NFL Radio that Kizer needs more time to grow on and off field and “should still be in college” – an assertion Kizer doesn’t necessarily disagree with, though he thinks he’ll be ready to play as an NFL rookie – Sanford has been a staunch and vocal supporter of his former QB.
“He’s an absolute joy to coach, because he can conceptualize things way faster than most of the quarterbacks I’ve been around, without having to draw it up or put it on film,” said Sanford, now head coach at Western Kentucky. “How many of these other quarterbacks have completely managed protections with live bullets coming at the largest stadiums in college football? How many of these other quarterbacks have manipulated the run game to make sure you’re not running bad runs into bad looks?
“The risk side of it is going to be he hasn’t played more than two years of college football. He is a larger athlete, so there’s always going to be that fine-tuning of the mechanics. But the reward for me is you have a 6-4, 225-plus quarterback that’s going to be able to stand up to the daunting physical aspect at the NFL level.”
You can see the smarts on that run check in the Texas game that led to a long gain, and the protection adjustment Kizer made on a touchdown pass to Josh Adams in the fourth quarter of the same game (a 50-47 loss in double overtime).
He can also pull up examples of the checks and decisions that didn’t go right – poor pocket movement on a critical interception against Duke, sliding the protection the wrong way against a USC pressure and taking a sack.
Kizer doesn’t have all the answers. He just doesn’t see why he can’t have them eventually.
“The experiences that I’ve gone through these past couple years are also what separates me in this class,” Kizer said. “I think I know what it takes to win, and I know what it takes to endure adversity. I’ve hit my low. It’s only up from here.”
Follow Tom Pelissero on Twitter @TomPelissero.
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