No finger pointing: DeShone Kizer's accountability hits the right notes at NFL Combine

No finger pointing: DeShone Kizer's accountability hits the right notes at NFL Combine

INDIANAPOLIS — San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch said former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer "blew the doors off" in an interview with his team, which doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who worked with or followed Kizer during his three-year stint in South Bend. 

In a more public interview setting on Friday, Kizer said he's taken accountability for Notre Dame's brutal season when it's been brought up in private. That level of personal ownership, and the lack of finger pointing from a guy who certainly would've been within his rights to do so, may resonate as teams examine whether or not to select Kizer in the 2017 NFL Draft. 

"A guy my size, my arm talent, my understanding of football, why do you go 4-8?" Kizer said of the prodding he's received in interviews with teams. "I've answered that question as truthfully as I possibly can, and that's I didn't make plays."

Notre Dame's worst season since 2007 wasn't all on Kizer, of course. An awful defense washed out huge stat lines Kizer had in losses to Texas (15/24, 215 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 rushing TD) and Duke (22/37, 381 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 1 rushing TD), for example. Brian Kelly's August decision to play both Kizer and Malik Zaire was an ill-fated one, leaving Kizer to look over his shoulder more than he would've liked while preparing for the season. 

"I don't think (the two quarterback approach) held me back, but I do think I spent a little too much time thinking about that rather than thinking about developing the guys around me and developing the trust," Kizer said. "Once again, that 2015 team and the 2016 team were completely different. We had almost completely different roster on offense. I think there should have been a little more time spent with me trying to develop that trust and develop the guys around me to make the plays in those fourth-quarter drives when needed. At times I was kind of looking over my shoulder a little bit too much. That's probably my biggest regret this past season."

Notre Dame's wide receivers were exceedingly young last year, and lone regular upperclassman Torii Hunter Jr. only appeared in eight games due to a pair of injuries. The losses of wide receiver Will Fuller, running back C.J. Prosise and offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin — all of whom were among the first 90 picks in last year's NFL Draft — created a talent vacuum that Kizer and the Irish weren't able to fill. 

Kizer certainly could've pointed to all those mitigating factors, as well as his still-solid stat line (58.7 percent completion rate, 2,925 yards, 26 TDs, 9 INTs, 8 rushing TDs) and try to absolve himself of responsibility for Notre Dame's dismal season. But doing so probably would've been detrimental to his chances of being a high draft pick — blaming others is never good for locker room morale, after all. 

"The ball's in my hand every play," Kizer said. "It's my job at Notre Dame to put us in position to win games, to trust
in the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make those plays with me."

But the Bears have, in Indianapolis, made mention of wanting a quarterback to have the ability to make everyone around him better, which is something Kizer didn't do in 2016. General manager Ryan Pace pointed to the success Drew Brees in college — at a perennial underdog of a program — as something the team would like a young quarterback to have in his history. 

"You want to see a guy who has elevated his program," Pace, who was part of the New Orleans Saints front office when Brees led the franchise to a Super Bowl win, said. "Again, you just reference places you've been. I know I've talked about this (player) a lot because he had a big impact on me. But I think about Brees when he was at Purdue. And he elevated that program. He took them to the Rose Bowl. I think that means something. I think that's something that we have to pay attention to."

Based on that boat-raising trait, Clemson's Deshaun Watson would seem to be the guy if the Bears decide to target a quarterback in the draft. While Notre Dame (under Kizer) and North Carolina (under Mitchell Trubisky) both took steps back in 2016, Clemson made the only stride possible for that program: Beating Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game a year after losing to the Crimson Tide on the same stage. 

Watson elevated Clemson from a perennial good-not-elite team to a title contender in the two years he regularly started for the Tigers. That may resonate more with the Bears than Kizer being a good interview. 

Kizer has other tantalizing traits, of course — his Combine measurements of 6-foot-4, 233 pounds and 9 7/8" hand are awfully close to those of Andrew Luck (6-foot-4, 234 pounds, 10" hand). And his 2015 film, during which Notre Dame went 10-3 and was a pair of two-point losses away from going 12-0), can't be thrown out because the Irish plummeted to eight losses a year later. 

But what Kizer showed on Friday was accountability, confidence and poise. Are those intangible traits, and his answers to teams in Indianapolis, good enough to warrant interest from teams — like the Bears — picking high in the draft?

"I guess we'll see if they'll come see me at Pro Day," Kizer said. 

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

Bears’ Markus Wheaton says wide receiver group is 'definitely underrated'

No doubt, there are doubts about the makeup of this 2017 Bears wide receiver corps. But as the departed Alshon Jeffery created doubts, health-wise, the past two years about whether he could stay on the field to prove himself worthy of a big payday (which he didn’t even get from the Eagles), Ryan Pace brought in a handful of replacements who’ve flashed in this league before. But recent history’s shown each of them has something to prove as well.

From Rueben Randle to fellow former Giant Victor Cruz. From former first rounders Kendall Wright to Kevin White, taking a third swing at making it though an entire NFL season.

Then there’s Markus Wheaton, the only free agent signee at the position this season to receive a two-year deal ($11 million total, with $6 million guaranteed). Like the rest of the group, though, he’s at a career crossroads. Following seasons with 53 and 44 catches in Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015 (with a 17-yard average in the latter), the quick-twitch former Steeler was limited to three games a year ago before eventually undergoing surgery for a torn labrum in January.

“Everyone’s new, so we don’t know what it’s gonna be,” he said of the group at the team’s recent minicamp in Lake Forest. “In Pittsburgh you kind of have a clue `cause they’ve done it for so long. Everybody’s new, everybody’s trying to find their niche, so we’ll see how it goes. Anything’s possible. We’ve got a lot of guys who are looking for opportunity. A lot of guys that are hungry and have something to prove. Anything’s possible. Anyone can come out on top. The ultimate goal is to win games and I’m sure the coaches will put us in position to do that.”

The former third-round pick out of Oregon State (where he’s the Beavers’ all-time career leader in receptions, one ahead of Brandin Cooks) played all three receiver positions in Pittsburgh at various times, and while he seems most natural in the slot, is working to make himself as versatile as possible here. But that comes with some risk as a quarterback room that’s also gone through its share of turnover tries to get on the same page with all the targets. But Wheaton is more than confident the results will come from within this group.

“I think we definitely are underrated," Wheaton said. "We’ve come in and worked to get to where we wanna be. We will get there, and it’ll show up on the field.”

The incumbents in the room include Joshua Bellamy, Deonte Thompson, Daniel Braverman, Cam Meredith, and, of course, White. Wheaton can see the potential in the ex-seventh overall draft pick.

“I couldn’t imagine all the stuff he’s been through, all the pressure that’s been put on him," Wheaton said. "But he’s a down-to-earth guy who works extremely hard, so I think he’s gonna get his. He’s a big-time playmaker, so I’m excited to see him play.

“They welcomed me with open arms. Everybody’s down to earth, been easy to talk to so when I have questions, I’ve been getting answers, so it’s been real easy for me.”

That surgically-repaired shoulder was cleared for full participation just in time for minicamp two weeks ago. And Wheaton won’t allow himself to become hesitant physically as he aims to conquer what hesitation he could have within the offense, working with quarterbacks not named Ben Roethlisberger.

“I really don’t think there’s time for that. When you’re ready to go, you just go,” Wheaton told us. “You come in, you work, you rehab. And for me personally I had to rehab a lot to get back to where I wanted to be. There’s a level I want to be at. I’ve been just working to get there, so there’s no time for that.”

That last statement comes even if some observers hesitate to call Wheaton and these wideouts “underrated.” They’ll start attempting to prove that when the Bears report to Bourbonnais exactly one month from Monday.

Can Deiondre' Hall overcome on- and off-field hurdles to make an impact with Bears?

Can Deiondre' Hall overcome on- and off-field hurdles to make an impact with Bears?

Rookie Deiondre' Hall flashed in the preseason a year ago, leading the Bears coaching staff and fans to believe they found something amidst their trio of 2016 fourth round draft picks. 

He’s hoping to do the same this August after overcoming one physical hurdle, while waiting to see if he can get past a legal hurdle he created for himself.

Let’s start on the field, where, just days after his first NFL interception in the fourth game last season, he sustained an ankle injury in practice, sidelining him for two months. Once his walking boot and scooter were finally put away, he was active for the final four games. But what progress he’d been making on the field was difficult to recapture.

“Just coming off the injury, there was a little rust here and there, but the training staff here’s great and I had to push through it,” Hall said at last week’s minicamp in Lake Forest after he was one of numerous Bears hit by the injury bug, but not one of the 19 who wound up on Injured Reserve. “(I was) getting comfortable with the defense and in myself playing with those guys out there, getting the opportunity in the red zone and making plays. But the injury kinda sucked because I haven’t really had an opportunity to play since Week 5, so I’m not necessarily starting fresh.”

As the offseason unfolded, Hall was informed the coaching staff was going to try him at safety, if not permanently, then as an option for the 6-foot-2, 201-pound Northern Iowa product. 

But Hall’s not totally foreign to the position. He was a free safety his first year in college, then transitioned to outside linebacker/nickel as a sophomore, moved to cornerback as a junior before breaking his hand his senior year, playing through it back where he started at safety. So the decision wasn’t a big deal, especially if it enhances his chances to get on the field. But his preference?

“Defense. Opportunity,” Hall responded. “You get in where you fit in and the more you can do, the better it is for the team. If opportunity presents itself at corner, then I’m at corner. But right now at safety, I’m making strides (there) and keep pushing for that.”

“We’re gonna float him back and forth,” defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said last month, after the Bears signed free agent cornerbacks Prince Amukamara and Marcus Cooper in the off-season, while Bryce Callahan and Cre’Von LeBlanc are expected to battle for slot duty and former first-rounder Kyle Fuller and veterans Johnthan Banks and B.W. Webb hope to impress. “He (Hall) had some experience there in college. When it comes down to picking your team and you’re taking nine or 10 DBs, if someone’s got versatility to play both of those spots, that helps, so we’re gonna see if he’s one of those guys.”

But before Hall gets back to work in Bourbonnais, he’ll find out if he has some other dues to pay. Hall was back at his alma mater’s Cedar Falls campus March 26th when he and a former UNI teammate were arrested outside a bar called Sharky’s. Police had responded to a call, and by the time all was said and done, Hall needed to be tased before being arrested on charges of public intoxication, interference (with an arrest), and disorderly conduct. 

The case was continued late last month and Hall’s jury trial is scheduled for July 11th. Pending the outcome, he could face disciplinary action from the team and the NFL. He’s told his side of the story to Bears management and while expressing remorse for putting himself in the situation, Hall says it wasn’t in character and feels confident in what the outcome will be.

“People make mistakes and the truth always comes out,” the 23-year-old said, adding the situation isn’t weighing on his mind or affected his preparation in off-season workouts. “You gotta let people make their own mistakes. I won’t shed light but the truth always comes out, and (I’ve learned) just don’t take anything for granted.”

“My main focus is football and keep pushing to make strides to become good, and great.”