DeShone Kizer was a third-string quarterback just five months ago. To put that into perspective, not even Cardale Jones was that far down his own depth chart two springs ago before J.T. Barrett eclipsed him for the backup job in fall camp last year. But this is the new normal in college football, where Notre Dame can lose its starting running back (Tarean Folston) for the season in the first game, lose its starting quarterback (Malik Zaire) for the season in the second game ... and fit right in with the rest of the college football elite.
Look no further, of course, than defending national champion Ohio State, which lost a pair of Heisman candidates (Braxton Miller, Barrett) at the position over the course of four months, only to have Jones step right in and carry the Buckeyes past the finish line and to the national championship.
Asking as much of Notre Dame at this point is a far taller task, given the timing of Zaire’s injury, and the fact that Everett Golson was still around in the spring, having minimized any potential first-team reps then for Kizer. Yes, Kizer has an all-world safety net in Will Fuller — as we all saw Saturday — and he has a very strong offensive line in front of him. But he has two games’ worth of experience, on an offense that is still starting to take shape in the early parts of a season, with a new coordinator (Mike Sanford) at the helm, with Showtime cameras trailing he and his teammates’ every move, with a running back who was sharing third-team reps with him as recently as April (C.J. Prosise).
That Notre Dame is standing this week without a defeat after all of that is somewhat impressive, especially considering all of the alleged heavyweights who were dealt big blows this past Saturday. But two weeks in, and the Irish are already stretched to the limit, or darn near close. And asking them to not yield another inch over the next 10 games seems unsustainable, especially with a defense that looked thoroughly mediocre against Virginia, a unit that will have its work cut out for it this weekend against Georgia Tech and its option attack.
It helps, of course, to have a head coach who has played the role of crisis counselor in the past. Sure, the idea of Kelly being labeled a quarterback genius may seem laughable to Irish fans who are tired of five-plus years of middling QB play. But for all of that pre-Notre Dame hype, it is worth remembering that Kelly’s best work was often done on the fly. Behind redshirt freshman Dan LeFevour in 2006, Kelly’s last Central Michigan team won the MAC title. Two years later at Cincinnati, Kelly used five different signal-callers to help the Bearcats win the first Big East title in school history. A year later, in 2009, Zach Collaros went 4-0 down the stretch upon relieving an injured Tony Pike, carrying Cincinnati to an undefeated regular season.
“I don't bring up any specific things that have happened in my career relative to the position of injury, other than we're not going to make any excuses for it and we believe that we've got players that we've recruited that can go in and get the job done,” Kelly said Sunday. “Now it's DeShone's time and I've got confidence in him and I know our players do.”
Perhaps, in a backwards way, Saturday’s opponent will offer a bit of a reprieve, given the circumstances. Kelly said he had set aside about 10 minutes a day during those supposed dark days at Cincinnati to get each new signal-caller acclimated with his receivers through some one-on-one work. Notre Dame wasn’t going to pit its offense against its defense much this week anyway, since Georgia Tech runs an option-based attack, so that will allow Kizer to get in some extra work with his receivers.
For a coach who is 15-1 at Notre Dame when starting true or redshirt freshman quarterbacks, here comes the ultimate test, with expectations as high as they have ever been during his six-year reign.
“We are not going to make any excuses for where we are,” Kelly said. “There's no reason why we can't win with DeShone Kizer. There's no reason why we can't win with C.J. Prosise [in place of] Tarean Folston.
“Anybody that we lose, we believe that we've got guys that can step up.”
Deeper and deeper the Irish dig, hoping against hope that, just two games in, the worst is behind them.