SOUTH BEND — As effortless as DeShone Kizer's six-touchdown performance in Sunday's loss to Texas looked at times, the redshirt sophomore was almost equally nonchalant Wednesday when he revealed he was declared the winner of Notre Dame's prolonged quarterback battle by head coach Brian Kelly.
“I had a conversation with coach Kelly today and he decided this week that I'm going to get the first snap for sure,” Kizer said, putting an end to months of speculation since he and redshirt junior Malik Zaire formally began competing for the starting job in spring ball. “He kind of congratulated me on fighting through the process and encouraged me to maintain the same mindset and just assured me that I would be the guy on Saturday.
“As of now I'm expecting to be the only guy. The conversation was more just to let me know I'll be the guy. We'll see how the game goes. Obviously Malik is an amazing athlete and there's going to come a time where you're definitely going to see him on the field, I believe.”
Kelly said he viewed his quarterback race as a tie when the team arrived in Austin, Texas, one that required “a real solid performance” in a live game setting to reshape the pecking order. Kizer did just that by accounting for 292 total yards and six touchdowns while leading every Fighting Irish scoring drive, while Zaire struggled during his turns behind center in the two-man rotation.
“He made a pretty big statement,” Kelly said of Kizer.
Once it became clear Kizer was taking the reins, it became natural to wonder about the response of Zaire, the older and more outwardly emotional of the two. So far, Zaire has taken the news as well as Kelly could have expected.
“I thought he had really two very good days. … In particular, Wednesday and Thursday I thought he was really focused, locked in and is ready to lead our football team,” Kelly said. “And that's all I've asked him to be is ready to lead our team.”
After emerging victorious, Kizer was able to reflect on the drawn-out position battle and how it changed him as a player. He learned to operate better under pressure, and the importance of staying in the moment rather than clinging to mistakes or forecasting what might happen next.
While Kizer appreciates having a talented backup in Zaire to help keep him sharp, he's also glad to see the awkward two-quarterback system go. Kizer shrugged off the notion that Notre Dame could have staved off Texas had he taken all of the quarterback snaps, but he was enthused by the possibility of being able to get into a rhythm on game day once again when the No. 18 Irish host Nevada in Saturday's home-opener.
“It helps, it definitely helps when it comes to your mindset when you're out there and you're getting every rep with the ones with the guys who are going to be playing,” Kizer said.
Kizer and the Irish still do not know if redshirt junior wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. will be available Saturday after he suffered a concussion against Texas. Sixth-year senior safety Avery Sebastian was cleared to return from his concussion sustained against the Longhorns, while Hunter will be evaluated after Friday's practice, Kelly said. If Hunter is cleared by the medical staff in time, Kelly said it will be Hunter's decision as to whether he plays against Nevada.
Now that Notre Dame has its long-awaited clarity at quarterback, it can use the meeting with the Wolf Pack to address some its other deficiencies exposed during the Texas loss.
As they were last year, the Irish were susceptible to big plays through the air against the Longhorns, surrendering 280 passing yards to true freshman Shane Buechele and another 237 on the ground. Notre Dame's secondary was routinely beat deep, the defensive line generated almost no pressure, the offensive line was not as steady as expected and the Irish had uncharacteristic blunders on special teams.
“Everything that we do we expect from Week 1 to Week 2 to see big improvements,” Kelly said.
In just the second ever game between the two programs, Notre Dame should be able to simply overpower the Wolf Pack in many facets of Saturday's contest, allowing the Irish to release any leftover frustration from the Texas loss.
Situated on the schedule right after the highly-anticipated prime time game on the road against a historical power and right before a matchup with No. 12 Michigan State, this week presented a classic trap-game scenario.
Being outclassed against the Longhorns likely thwarts any concerns about a lack of focus Saturday. And while some Group of Five programs have the potential to put a scare into a team of decorated recruits like Notre Dame, Nevada doesn't fit the bill this year. The Wolf Pack eked out a three-point win against Cal Poly in Week 1 despite recording fewer first downs than their FCS foes and being out-gained 445-363.
“When does a fan get over (a loss), right? Wednesday? Thursday?” Kelly said. “Our guys got to get back to work. … We get 24 hours to kind of think about it, watch the film, grade it and then we move on.
“(Monday) night we started watching Nevada, so it's pretty a quick turnaround. Whether it's a high or a low, there's a routine amongst football programs, and this team in particular, that we move on pretty quickly.”
At this point, those who follow Kelly's team probably feel the same way — the sooner the Texas memories fade and get replaced by newer ones, the better.
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