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Does DeShone Kizer need football to be fun to flourish?

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In the midst of a tough 2016 campaign, DeShone Kizer said that he needed to “reach back in and have some fun” as he recognized adversity was getting to him.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

By now most Browns fans have a passing familiarity with DeShone Kizer’s career at Notre Dame. After red-shirting his freshman year, Kizer was Malik Zaire’s backup in 2015 but quickly took over the starting role when Zaire fractured his ankle at the end of the 3rd quarter as the Irish faced off against Virginia in just their second game of the season.

Kizer would benefit immediately from a C.J. Prosise touchdown on his first snap, but a series of unfortunate events led to Notre Dame being down 27-26 with just under two minutes remaining. The game had an epic finish with Kizer taking the snap as the clocked ticked down with just 19 seconds remaining. Will Fuller, who lined up as the X receiver, didn’t move immediately with the snap, but eventually did take off on a go-route and burned his defender down the left sideline.

Kizer, with two defenders in his face, somehow pitched a perfect strike over Fuller’s head and right into his hands for a 39-yard score with 12 seconds left on the clock.

Kizer charged down the field with both hands raised in triumphant joy, as Virginia fans slumped in the stands. Following the game, Kizer told the assembled media that “there’s no stopping the Irish” and proceeded to go 7-1 in his first eight college starts.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Virginia
DeShone Kizer enjoys the moment following a comeback, game-winning touchdown drive he capped off in the 2-minute drill against Virgina in 2015.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the promise shown in 2015, Kizer was not able to continue his winning ways in 2016, finishing with a 4-8 mark on the season. Undoubtedly, much of this was due to high-profile departures including Prosise, Fuller, and Ronnie Stanley via the 2016 draft. Wins are not a QB-only stat. However, Kizer did contribute to Notre Dame’s lost season with inconsistency and miscues of his own. At Notre Dame, the expectation (what Brian Kelly referred to as “standards”) is that the team is a winner.

In an attempt to get to know Kizer a little better, I looked back through Notre Dame press conferences from the 2016 campaign. I found the September 28th interview to be the most revealing about his state of mind. This press conference followed a tough loss to Duke where members of the media were asking questions about Kizer’s ability to right the ship. The theme that dominated discussion was whether Kizer was having fun still, and if not, how that needed to be fixed.

Kizer was asked whether he needed to recapture the excitement of 2015, and in particular the game-winning drive he had against Virginia. He responded by telling the media that “it’s easy to run down the field and have your hands up when you’re winning games ... it’s not fun to lose. I’m not going to go out there and pretend as if it is.” As the discussion continued, Kizer did eventually admit that he “definitely needs to reach back in and have some fun” and that he, via the pressure he put on himself, “took the fun out” of being the quarterback for Notre Dame.

The sheer length of Kizer’s comments about this suggests the question of whether football is fun was absolutely at the top of his mind at that particular moment. After watching other media appearances by Kizer, I noticed that he admitted on at least one other occasion that adversity on the gridiron really got to him. When talking with Gruden about backing up Zaire in 2015, Kizer confessed that he was “honestly considering picking up the baseball again...or maybe swinging a bat.” Kizer went on to say in the same interview that he did decide to commit fully to football and prepared his best to be Zaire’s back up, the results of which showed on the field when he got his chance.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Southern California
DeShone Kizer walks off the field following a 45-27 route by USC on November 26, 2016.
Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Where Kizer really lights up is when he is talking about his biggest successes, especially those that his unique arm talent helps open up for him. Talking with Gruden about a touchdown throw vs. Temple in which he split the safety and cornerback who doubled his receiver with a perfect throw, he had this to say:

“Defenders have been coached certain ways for forever. And part of coaching is for defensive coordinators to deem [certain] throws impossible. Those are the throws I want to make.”

The impressive pass can be found at 5:50 at this link.

While I would like to draw sweeping conclusions about Kizer’s character, no amount of press conferences will ever let us, as fans, truly know a player. We simply can’t know whether he is more sensitive than the average NFL quarterback to adversity just on the basis of a few interviews.

I would like to think, though, that he would grow best if he’s out there with a team around him that allows him not to feel 100% of the pressure to carry the team from day one. If the Browns can put a strong running game around Kizer and let him focus on fundamentals and making signature throws, then perhaps he can taste enough success on the Browns to have the “play free, to have fun” mentality. That is a goal he articulated during an adverse 2016 season, but did not seem to achieve before the season finished. With some good fortune at the NFL level, hopefully, we’ll begin to hear him, in addition to those who have already articulated it, say “there’s no stopping the Cleveland Browns.”