Editor’s Note: A version of this story originally appeared for The Observer on Oct. 28, 2016.
DeShone Kizer said he did his best to relax over Notre Dame’s bye week and the University’s fall break.
“You can’t be too far away,” Kizer said during captain’s availability Wednesday. “Obviously we still have some great games to play in and half of the season to go through. So you remove yourself away in the sense of physically getting off your feet and getting your body back to where you want it to be. But mentally you have to stay locked in.”
It was typical press conference jargon: guarded and focused on the task at hand.
When asked about his eight-month old puppy though, the caution flew away like the chairs around the dining table when the 105-pound Neapolitan mastiff spotted Notre Dame’s quarterback returning home over break.
“Right now he’s pretty fast,” Kizer said. “He’s super energetic, but the older he gets, he’s going to get to about 185, 190 pounds.
“It’s going to be a pretty ironic name to have when you’re big and slow but his name’s Dash.”
Dash originally lived with the junior in South Bend but quickly needed a little bit more room to roam. Now he’s back at Kizer’s parents’ household in Toledo, Ohio, where Kizer said he’s finishing his house training. The teething phase has passed too, Kizer added, so there are no more “drive-by bitings” after someone’s toes wandered a little too far off the edge of the couch.
“Dash is all over the place. The guy’s just so energetic — he won’t leave you alone,” Kizer said, his face visibly losing tension as he spoke. “He’s out back chasing anything he possibly can. If you have anything in your hand and he wants to get your attention, he’s going to take it out and try to fetch it.”
There were other distractions at home, too: Kizer said his mother kept him busy with chores around the house, and he celebrated his sister Maelyn’s birthday.
“Part of her birthday present was to redo her room, so I was back — just like I never left — helping my mom remodel my sister’s room,” Kizer said. “We were painting. We put on two new layers of everything, from the walls to the floors, redoing her wood floors, to the ceiling. We were painting absolutely everything.”
Add in a couple home-cooked meals alternating with Vito’s chicken bacon ranch pizza, and you have the secret ingredients for escaping the pressures of being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback — at least for a few days.
“The goal is to do nothing,” Kizer said of the first few days being at home. “There’s so much pressure on you here, and when you’re walking around campus, whether you acknowledge it or not, there’s people all over who are putting out different things.
“ … And when you get to go back home you get to go back to what got you to this position and truly relax in that sense. Being home allowed me the opportunity to hang out with friends who were back home doing things in Toledo and talk about things other than football for once. Just to remove yourself, re-gather yourself, so that when you come back you have as much of a fresh slate as you possibly can.”
Kizer and the rest of the Notre Dame football program have certainly felt the pressure after a 2-5 start to a season that started with a top-10 ranking and playoff expectations. Now the Irish welcome a Miami team that reached the top 10, only to lose its last three games and join Notre Dame in a rankings free fall.
The two teams certainly share a storied history, but the connections continue through to the present, especially in the pocket with Kizer and his friend Brad Kaaya, Miami’s junior quarterback.
“Brad and I came out in the same [recruiting] class and actually were in the Elite 11 [national quarterback competition] together and developed a good friendship,” Kizer said. “We kind of were two of a couple pro-style guys in the Elite 11. Coming out being the tall, athletic stature, you’d expect us both to be dual-threat guys, but we’re two guys who pride ourselves on being in the pocket and trying to stay in the pocket as much as we can to be a pro-style guy. So we definitely related along those lines.”
Both players have drawn notice around the country.
“[Kaaya] runs the system very well,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Tuesday. “He can go from direct snap to shotgun. There’s a little bit of everything that he can do. He can run a little bit of zone read. He’s not going to kill you with it, but he keeps you off balance. He’s a guy that likes to push the ball down the field.
“His numbers speak for themselves. He’s a veteran quarterback. He’s probably the most veteran quarterback that we’ve played up to this point in terms of experience.”
“[The roster] says 230 [pounds]. He looks like he might be even a little bigger than that, in a good way,” Miami head coach Mark Richt said about Kizer. “Very strong, very physical, very athletic.”
Many preseason mock drafts had Kizer and Kaaya as potential high first-round choices should they declare for the NFL Draft after this season, but both have struggled as of late. Kizer has thrown for just 208 yards combined in his last two games, being intercepted three times while failing to find the end zone. Kaaya has been sacked 13 times over the Hurricanes’ losing streak — including eight times in Miami’s 37-16 loss to Virginia Tech last weekend — while throwing for four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Overall, however, each quarterback’s body of work has been solid. Kaaya came in and played as a true freshman, earning ACC Rookie of the Year honors, and improved his numbers and Miami’s record during his sophomore season; Kizer’s rise to the starting role early last season has been well-documented as well.
“He was obviously put in position as a true freshman to go out and show himself early, and then I came out a year later and now we’re being compared together as the same style of quarterback,” Kizer said. “Being a good friend with him, it’s fun to see him be as successful as he’s been. We go all the way back to junior year of high school where all we have are aspirations of being great, and now we’re in positions where we’re starting for two major college football teams.”
“I think they’re carbon copies,” Notre Dame graduate student defensive lineman Jarron Jones said about playing against Kizer and Kaaya. “I think DeShone’s more willing to run because Kaaya doesn’t run that much. He likes to wait in the pocket a lot more, but he’s a great quarterback. He knows his reads. He makes great throws. If he has to run it, he’s very dangerous running it as well.”
After a few days away from football over break, Kizer said he began working his way back into the game by watching Miami play Virginia Tech last weekend, though he doesn’t usually watch football games while on break.
“It’s hard, especially when Miami’s on offense and you want to get involved with looking at what their offense looks like because you typically don’t get that side of things when you’re getting ready to play against someone,” Kizer said. “You’re just evaluating as much as you can.
“For me, to watch football or, frankly, any sport with the analytical mind that you have from being within college sports, it’s hard not to look through the entertaining side of things and evaluate everyone out in the field. I’m reading defenses from my couch, from [Buffalo Wild Wings], from wherever I’m standing, so it’s pretty difficult. So I try to stay away from watching sports as much as I can and allow my time at home to be away.”
Now, Kizer said, it’s about finding the offensive production that scored an average of 39.8 points over its first five games but has combined for just 13 over the last two.
“Everyone has come in and put together these great looks and these great ideas about specific defenses, specific style,” Kizer said. “And that’s great, to check those all out. But I think there’s an understanding now that we have to figure out what we are doing well and put emphasis on that.”
With a defense that’s improving, Kizer said the team’s turnaround is coming after the “reset” fall break provided.
“It’s time to spread the ball around and keep pushing forward. I believe that our offense is one of the best in the country, no matter what statistics say,” Kizer said. “And all it takes is for us to buy into that, have the confidence to do what we do, and make sure that we’re out there executing the game plan.
“The only thing that’s stopping us these last seven games is ourselves. We’re putting ourselves in the position to win the game in the fourth quarter each game, and lack of execution is the only thing that’s stopped us from winning those. If we can buy in, be focused, be disciplined, continue to do what we do and do it well, we’re going to be fine. We’re going to win some games at the end of this season.”