SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Following what was regarded as a disappointing performance at the NFL scouting combine, Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer had a lot riding on his pro day performance on Thursday, including a possible first-round landing spot on April 27.
Nothing is guaranteed — especially with quarterbacks — and everything counts.
“This is all new to me, but I think this — a pro day workout — it’s all a part of the equation,” John Lynch, the San Francisco 49ers’ analyst-turned-general manager, told Shutdown Corner after the session on Thursday. “The film, obviously, is most important. But at [quarterback] particularly, there’s so much to figuring it all out. Spending time with [Kizer], watching him throw, I think that up-close perspective is very important.”
Lynch praised Kizer at the combine, saying he knocked the interview “out of the park.” But most observers’ takes were that Kizer’s throwing session and athletic testing numbers were not up to snuff. A big pro day performance could quell some of that talk and change the narrative.
So on this critical day, Kizer left his fate partly in the hands of:
The son of a basketball Hall of Famer, a receiver who retired from football with a year of eligibility left (Corey Robinson)
A receiver with a grand total of five NFL preseason game snaps to his name (Amir Carlisle)
A former Irish defensive end-turned-tight end who played last season at Ohio State (Chase Hounshell)
And a former Sports Illustrated cover boy, one who now could be an entry in their annual “Where Are They Now?” issue (Jonas Gray)
Quite the motley crew of pass catchers for Kizer, throwing in front of the eyes of Lynch, Pittsburgh Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley and those of representatives from 20 of the 32 NFL teams. Surely, you remember Gray — he of 37-carries, 201-yards, four-TDs fame for the New England Patriots against the Indianapolis Colts back in 2014. But it seemed as soon as he became an overnight sensation, he was gone. Bill Belichick later cut the out-of-shape Gray in 2015 and he was out of the league this past season.
Pro days are weird (NCAA rules prohibit athletes not eligible for the draft from contributing), and Kizer needed another back to throw to. So the only Irish teammate he had thrown a pass to during a difficult 2016 season was running back Tarean Folston, a possible Day 3 draft pick after declaring early. That’s why Kizer hooked up with Gray, who had been working to get back on the NFL’s radar, and emailed his pro day passing script to the former Irish back, who last played at the school in 2011. Kizer had never thrown a pass to Gray before Thursday.
“It was definitely a different situation than most. Most guys typically go into their pro day with at least one or two guys they’ve thrown to,” Kizer said, following his workout and an hour-long tape session with two members of the New Orleans Saints, including QBs coach Joe Lombardi. “Not necessarily the best situation … but we definitely made the best of what we had.”
That best showed up in a 63-throw script on Thursday that Kizer drew up with the help of his coach, former NFL quarterback Zac Robinson, and and also heard about some of the throws that Clemson’s Deshaun Watson was asked to do at his pro day last week. Kizer also asked NFL people the past few weeks what type of throws they wanted to see him make.
The ratio of throws was about 80-20 under center vs. shotgun, which was about the inverse of what Kizer was asked to run in his two seasons of starting at Notre Dame. The offense Kizer ran didn’t change much, philosophically, from 2015 to 2016 — they were still using Brian Kelly’s shotgun-heavy spread offense — but personnel-wise, it was night and day. Gone were deep threat Will Fuller and elite pass-catching back C.J. Prosise; Kizer worked with one pass catcher in 2016 who had more than seven catches in 2015, and he also lost standout offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin.
Kizer’s numbers were not terrible, but the team slumped to an un-Irish-like 4-8 and Kelly even benched Kizer at one point. Kizer went from a possible No. 1 overall pick following a five-TD performance in the opener against Texas to a mystery draft prospect. Many assume he’ll be drafted after Watson and North Carolina’s Mitchell Trubisky, who has stolen Kizer’s new-kid-on-the-block status, and he could even be taken after the latest draft crush, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes.
“Teams are going to put a big question mark on the season we had last year,” Kizer said. “But after explaining my two cents on why that season went the way it did, a lot of teams are now moving forward to see what it is going to take for me to be a consistent thrower.”
Are we certain Kizer will be taken in Round 1? Well, the pro day should help mitigate his uncertain stock. Although he completed only 52 of 66 passes, that number includes five drops from his unfamiliar receivers and at least three balls of the 50-50 variety that were not secured. Still, even with some overthrows — Kizer was more often high than low on the day — he showed excellent zip on the ball, moved around the pocket well and displayed good but not pristine touch and placement.
Midway through the script, Carlisle was rushing things a bit. Kizer quietly told him to slow down, take an extra break and told him, “let me know when you’re ready. We’re good on time.” It was a nice moment of quiet leadership.
There’s no question Kizer has big NFL tools and some mental strength. Can he clean up the mechanics and be more consistent? Those are the sticking points.
Kizer was more effective throwing to his right than to the left at the pro day, and it’s something he has been working on, mechanically, since the subpar combine session.
“At the combine, I was real jerky at the top of my drop and I wanted to show that wasn’t really me,” Kizer explained. “It was definitely an emphasis that I had at the combine to be a guy who turned aggressively at the top of his drop to kind of separate myself. But it kind of threw me off balance.
“So to get back to kind of drifting left rather than jerking and turning left is something I really wanted to put an emphasis on today.”
For the most part he did, and the sloppy footwork that felled him this past season — causing a slew of underthrown passes — and at the combine appeared to be cleaned up. Looking leaner at 233 pounds (down from the 250 at which he played against USC in the season finale), Kizer threw the ball well, uncorking two impressive throws of at least 50 yards — one caught, one Robinson couldn’t haul in — and several zippy balls on deep outs, over routes, post patterns and the like.
Even though Kizer has a few credits left to get his degree, Thursday was a graduation of sorts — from the things Notre Dame asked him to do to what NFL teams are more expecting — with clean feet being a huge element at the next level.
“For us at Notre Dame, when you have so many different bright-minded coaches, there’s always going to be adjustments that need to be made,” he said. “Going into the NFL I want to make sure that I know who I am. Not what Coach [Mike] Sanford wanted me to do, not what Coach Kelly wanted me to do, not what Coach [Mike] Denbrock wanted me to do, but truly where am I most comfortable.”
Playing to his strengths could help determine Kizer’s draft fate, which still feels volatile, but there are NFL people willing to go on the record saying they like him.
“He handles himself so well,” Lynch said. “He’s intelligent, he’s thoughtful. He’s an impressive kid. And he’s got a lot of talent, which we saw today.”
Lynch was one of five members of the 49ers to look at Kizer, by far the largest contingent from any NFL team there, and they took him to dinner Wednesday night, although head coach Kyle Shanahan didn’t make the trip. So what traits are Lynch and Shanahan looking for in a quarterback?
“Some of that stuff we’ve got to keep in house,” Lynch said, smiling.
Even if the 49ers duo passes on Kizer at No. 2 overall, or passes on taking any quarterback there, he has options quickly thereafter, including with the owners of the No. 3 pick, the Chicago Bears, who had two scouts at Thursday’s pro day and will work Kizer out privately. Heck, even if Kizer dipped into the end of Round 1, perhaps someone such as Haley could come away impressed. Kizer has a Ben Roethlisberger-esque ruggedness to his game, and Ben’s annual “the end might be near” hints have to at least get the Steelers thinking about finding his replacement.
Kizer says he’s not worried about where or when he’s drafted. He just wants to find the right place to play.
“The [draft pick] number means absolutely nothing,” Kizer said. “I want to be put into the right position that’s going to allow me to win. Obviously there is a financial … there’s something good with being drafted higher. But as long as I’m in a position where I can be good and contribute to the team as early as I possibly can to get to as many Super Bowls as we can, I’ll be happy.”
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