• Michael Fitch

Roll the Dice on Kizer

Living up to draft hype is difficult for any player, but no position has a more challenging time of it than quarterbacks. Add to that a Week 1 performance that far exceeded expectations and Deshone Kizer’s bar was set high.

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He didn’t always reach it but when he did, he was magnificent.

Physically, Kizer has ideal NFL height at 6’4” but his listed weight of 229 lbs is likely out-of-date. By the end of the season, he looked closer to 250 lbs and was difficult to bring down as a result. He often functioned as a blunt instrument in the run game because of his size while remaining nimble. Thanks to that combination of strength and agility, he ended the season with 472 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Kizer approached the game with a run-first mentality – he uses his ability as a runner to set up his receivers:

Kizer shows a quarterback keeper on a zone-read play while the outside receiver appears to block. The corner bites on the run, which allows the receiver to work behind him for a huge gain. The pass on the run has fantastic touch and accuracy. The NFL can be wary of dual threat quarterbacks, but his downfield thinking makes his feet an asset rather than a liability.

It's not just his performance off-the-run that is earning him praise, it’s plays like this:

It's easy to be wowed by the beautiful deep pass on this play but the most impressive part is Kizer’s pre-snap diagnosis. Recognizing a matchup that he likes, Kizer adjusts both the play and his pass protection to take advantage of the defense. This isn't a typical skill for quarterbacks at the collegiate level and it allows Kizer to get into his element early in games. When Kizer is at his best, he's taking early shots downfield and establishing a rhythm that leads to strike-after-strike on the short, intermediate, and deep levels of the passing game. Kizer’s season ended with 2925 yards through the air with an impressive ratio of 26 touchdowns against 9 interceptions.

Why isn’t Kizer being heralded over the other quarterbacks in this class? What’s holding Kizer back? Inconsistency.

Kizer’s weaknesses are set against the backdrop of a terrible season for the Fighting Irish. Ranked #10 at the start of the 2016 season, the Irish tumbled throughout the season and finished with a 4-8 record.

Offensive weapons from the prior year, Will Fuller and C.J. Prosise, were gone this season. Kizer was also protected by an offensive line that not only lost Ronnie Stanley, but was prone to backing up drives with false starts. The defense allowed nearly 28 points per game, often putting the offense in a difficult position.

Those issues were outside of Kizer’s control but his second half performances were not. As games wore on, Kizer’s poise would disappear:

The grace Kizer has in the first half of games is completely absent here – it's a big moment and Kizer forces a throw that turns into an interception. Rather than escape, he panics and makes a mistake. This happened regularly in the second half of games. Kizer also tends to do too much, which was a liability late in games for a team that relied on him to run the offense. Kizer's stats took a big hit because of these second half woes. The most troubling stat of all? Accuracy. Consider that Deshaun Watson ended the season with a completion percentage of 67.3% - Kizer only managed 58.7%.

The question looming behind Kizer’s performances was head coach Brian Kelly’s role in his development. In the weeks following his breakout game against Texas, Kelly tried to silence hype around Kizer by calling out his inexperience. He blamed Kizer for losses and benched him during a game against Stanford despite holding a lead. The mismanagement of a budding star was widespread and criticized. What effect did this have on Kizer and were his issues compounded by Kelly’s public criticism? To my eye, the weight of a terrible season and a coach willing to blame Kizer in the press seemed to make him shrink in the face of big moments.

The answer to that question will become clear at the next level and that makes him a gamble as a high selection. He’s not worth the pick at #2 overall but, if the 49ers trade down to maximize the value of their position, a mid-to-late 1st round pick would be well worth it. Kizer has more upside than most quarterbacks in this draft, he just needs a coach to put it all together. The last time a new head coach took a gamble on a Notre Dame quarterback, things seemed to work out just fine. Maybe lightning can strike twice for the 49ers.