NFL Draft a Turning Point for Notre Dame Football

Louis Nix - NFL Draft
Notre Dame Fighting Irish former football player Louis Nix runs a drill during Notre Dame pro day at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

With Notre Dame’s spring practice schedule in the books, and with summer’s football malaise approaching, the focus of all Fighting Irish fans should be on an event that is critical to the success of every major football program, and one that Notre Dame has struggled with for nearly two decades: the NFL Draft.

What makes the University of Notre Dame unique is its sincere belief and success in educating its student athletes while also developing their athletic talents. While Notre Dame has never wavered in its ability to graduate its players, it cannot be denied that high school athletes dream of one day joining the pro ranks, and Notre Dame’s ability to launch players to Sundays has been crumbling.

The importance of success on draft day is perfectly illustrated by Notre Dame’s history at the tight end position, a success that has been able to land the Fighting Irish with the title of “Tight End U.” In the past seven years Notre Dame has placed all of its starting tight ends into the NFL, and every single one was drafted in the 2nd round or higher (Anthony Fasano (2nd), John Carlson (2nd), Kyle Rudolph (2nd), and Tyler Eifert (1st)). Notre Dame’s most recent tight end, Troy Niklas, is projected by CBS Sports to be a 2nd round draft selection, and scouts have been praising his upside and athletic ability as an offensive line recruit who started his freshman season at linebacker before ultimately continuing Notre Dame’s tradition at the tight end position.

“Niklas is the latest in a line of NFL tight ends produced by Notre Dame,” writes the scouting profile of Troy Niklas on While a simple, brief sentence, it’s oozing with publicity that can only be purchased by continuously developing talent. Success breeds success, and it shows on the recruiting trail.

Notre Dame was able to sign two 4-star tight ends in its last class, one of whom was blue-chip prospect Tyler Luatua, who chose Notre Dame over offers from the likes of USC, Florida and defending champion Florida State. Luatua even opted for Notre Dame over a scholarship offer from Alabama, a surprise given his brother is currently a member of the Crimson Tide’s roster. A similar situation is developing during the current recruiting class, with elite tight end Chris Clark leaning heavily toward Notre Dame, and admitting Notre Dame’s success at the tight end position is a strong factor under consideration.

If Notre Dame’s ability to develop NFL talent is connected to its long-term success, one look at Notre Dame’s draft history since the last national championship in 1988 clearly highlights why the Fighting Irish have been largely mediocre during the years after Holtz’s departure and before Brian Kelly’s arrival.

Head Coach
1st Round Draft Selections
Lou Holtz (1988-1997) 12
Brian Kelly (2010-2013) 3
Tyrone Willingham (2003-2005) 1
Charlie Weis (2006-2010) 1
Bob Davie (1998-2002) 1
Total 18

Notre Dame’s ability to produce elite, 1st round NFL talent has been nearly non-existent since Lou Holtz’s departure in 1997. Bob Davie and Charlie Weis each oversaw five different draft classes and were only able to produce one 1st round draft selection. Interestingly, Tyrone Willingham, who oversaw two fewer NFL Draft classes while head coach at Notre Dame, managed to produce one 1st round draft choice in former Irish center Jeff Faine, making Willingham’s production of 1st round selections slightly better than that of either Charlie Weis or Bob Davie.

Current head coach Brian Kelly has been turning the tide. Holtz is responsible for 67% of Notre Dame’s 1st round selections since 1988 while Brian Kelly can claim responsibility for 17% during his first four draft classes, with Willingham, Weis and Davie lagging at 5.3% each. Should former captain and offensive lineman Zach Martin be selected in the 1st round of this year’s draft along with fan favorite Louis Nix – and CBS Sports has projected both to go in the 1st round – Kelly will have produced five 1st round draft picks overall, quintupling the success of his predecessors Willingham, Weis and Davie.

The selection of Martin and Nix in the 1st round would upgrade Kelly’s stake from 17% of Notre Dame’s 1st round selections since 1988 to 20%, and it would mark the most successful start of all the coaches considered. While Holtz would eventually bombard the NFL with golden domers – including producing seven 1st round draft selections in just two years between 1993 and 1994 – Kelly has the distinction of being ahead of Holtz at the same stage of their career. Holtz produced three 1st round selections with his first five draft classes – Kelly is on the verge of having five 1st rounders during the same time period.

Brian Kelly has slammed the brakes on the alarming trend of Notre Dame’s failure to produce 1st round talent. Hopefully the 2014 NFL Draft will show that Notre Dame has no longer come to a stop on a problem, but instead is finally heading in the right direction.

Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his fiancée. Scott can be reached at [email protected].

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  1. burgundy, there is some revisionist. history that you have to be wary of.

    There are some who allege a love of Notre Dame but what they love is a fantastis (as in literally, “fantasy” vesion of Notre Dame based on convenient nostalgia not based on fact. These are the types who FEEL and EMOTE about the non-won ’93 championship because their affection is for the delusion, not for the reality.

    “Decimated” Miami?? Huh I guess that was my illusion which saw Pat Terrell knock down the GOAHEAD two point score.

    And the “sacred moral Mission>” More like a great game marred by the ugliest display of non-sportsmanship and vitriol ever by the Notre Dame student body, which prompted the good fathers to end the Cane series after ’90. “Catholics v. convictcs?” Really, as sacred and moral as the crusades. And as a hisotian Ron you know we were NOT contending for the national championship every year.

    Phipps and Purdue the first nail, OJ the second in 1967.
    Phipps and Dillingham in ’68, then Michigan State
    Phipps again in ’69, then the SC tie

    ’70 we competed, but in the strangest of Novembers, the Joey T offense vanished against Ga Tech and LSU before the Cotton bowl triumph
    ’71? Ugly! Ugliest loss ever to SC, then debacle at LSU
    ’72?????Yikes!! Ken Schlezes fumbling punts against Mizzou.
    But ’73 was worth it. I could go on. But the people of this era may have conflated Tolkiend and Carlos Castanedas sojourns in the Sonoan desert chzing after Juan Matus and the Yaqui way of knowledge.!

    They do not love Notre Dame football with all its elegance and squalor.

    They love their own fantasy, and so must spread miseryand despair today.

    I will enjoy the Irish AGAINS this year. I know the problems at linebacker, but this team is vastly better than 2012 and should be our best team since 1993.

  2. Just a word about budding superstar Steve Elmer. A lot of draftniks are chirping about Aaron Donald, and Elmer sort of held his own against Donald though he did not play as well against Donald as he did against Leonard Williams, who is in the early mock first round for 2015. And elmer got a lot of work against Tuitt, remarking “There aren’t a lot of Stephon Tuitt’s in Midland. While nobody likes losing the middle of your OL,
    there were certain benefits derived from that adversity, such as Hegarty and Hanratty proving they could start and Steve Elmer jumpstarting what is going to be a magnificent career. THe OL is not arriving, it has arrived.

    1. It’s funny sometimes BJ. We can disagree on our vision of ND, but we all agree they need to step up this year and win some games


    1. I’m at the edge of my seat, please tell me what happens next.

      Do they go out and grow grass?
      Show him where the offense is?
      Protest and say they will only play for the Oregon OC?
      Say that Swarbrick has no soul?

    2. Rockne was the ND head coach from 1918 through 1930.

      The Philadelphia Eagles weren’t established until 1931.

      I’m guessing that when Rockne asked: “What do you say men?”

      their reply was…

      what’s a Philadelphia Eagle???

    3. If you read about Rockne he was the PT Barnum of college football. He constantly threatened the administration for a new stadium. If turf would have given him a chance to win he would have done it. Sometimes tradition and holding onto the past crushes true innovation. ND needs to walk a fine line of holding it’s identity and tradition, but adapting to a new world.

      1. I don’t know Jack, bj was there and was personal friends with him. He seems to know what Rockne would do in any situation.

    4. Burgy,

      What’s really ironic with big Bri’s line of thinking here is while Kelly is this unholy betrayer for just talking to the Eagles and therefore desperately needs to redeem himself…. Rockne actually spent his off season and spare time employed by the Studebaker car company of South Bend Indiana as their chief Marketing and Sales spokesman.

      They even produced a car in his honor.. The 1932/33 “Rockne Coupe with Rumble seat”


  4. MTA,

    One awesome point that you made is the largely older crowd that packs the stadium and sits there listlessly or the younger people that have to back and forth to use the restroom, get to the concession stand, etc. I often wonder what they are doing there. Of course it is their money and if they had the opportunity to go, then fair enough. I stopped going to the games because of that. The larger portion of the noise generated comes from the sudent section while a large portion of the balance of the crowd is well…they are there doing something, just not sure what that is. They aren’t cheering, clapping, yelling and providing fan support for the team. That in itself is a shame.

    1. It’s been a HUGE problem for years. The octagenarians and the ushers ensure that, instead of a college football atmospshere, we must behave as if it’s a ballet. Precisely why ND Stadium has been ranked as having the worst energy in the country. If you are so old that you can’t take people standing up and cheering, then make sure you have a nice flatscreen and stay home.

    2. This is where the Jumbo-tron comes in and the next step in Jack Swarbricks evil plan.

      Other stadiums that have them often scan the crowd during time-outs and breaks in the action, displaying the fans on their own stadium big screens.

      This has become a great way of getting fans up, cheering, and more involved.

      I my self would much rather be shown as one of those wild and crazies, instead of one of those Winthorpe types who prefer sitting and sipping tea with pinkies up!

      “Oh sure, like he went to Haaaavard”

  5. As for this draft, best of luck to all four mentioned,
    and here’s hoping Shembo ends up in Green Bay. They deserve each other.

    Re; the rest of this thread-
    The one tradition we can all agree upon is winning much much more often than losing,
    and without compromising the student in student-athlete, nor forgetting that
    moments of bad judgment as students sometime tend to go with the age they are.

    As for # of wins, elite opponents are more common than ever, resulting in some losses some Saturdays,
    and national championships, like bj said, are rare no matter where.

    Comparing coaches having different teams in different eras might be fun, but not of much value.
    As duranko said, Lou lost less, playing fewer games each season.

    If new turf helps, go for it. Change the scoreboard however you care to, especially
    if it gets the Medicare crowd who pack the stadium to generate a bit more noise and energy.
    If scheduling games at locations that improve elites’ visibility to/connection with ND
    and its excellent recruiters, I’m for it,
    be it in Texas, Georgia, or China.

    It appears to me Swarbick and Kelly are on the same page.

    I don’t question poster’s loyalties to ND,
    and I remain excited about BK’s first-ever potentially explosive O’
    since arriving here at ND, and a bring the pressure BVG D’ this season.

  6. When it came to playing in games for the National Championship, Lou used to say you didn’t need to be the very best team in the country, you just needed to be the team that played the very best football for that game.

    Lou was very good at preparing his team for a single, winner take all, match up.

    Brian Kelly coached in 3 consecutive National Championship games while at Grand Valley St. (2001, 2002, & 2003) winning championships in 2 of those 3…. which meant he had to win every game in a 4 game elimination playoff in order to claim a title. (or a total of 14 games per season)

    I would say Kelly was very good at preparing his teams for an extended playoff run and championship.

  7. dear duranko:

    to me notre dame football was a sacred thing. the old fieldhouse, the friday night rallies, pat obrien giving the rockne speech. my freshman year winning a national championship. my sophmore year my roommate was an all american safety. pergine and eddie debartolo were down the hall. rocky blier came by. four years of amazing football. followed by devine and holtz. the best of the best. we competed for a national championship every year. i remember lou decimating fsu. and tony rice and the rocket and lou decimating the convicts from miami. it was a sacred moral mission then. the kids came from catholic schools. they graduated and didnt turn pro in their third year. then kevin white and the tragedy of notre dame every year. year after year. i am no traditionalist. i led a strike against the war in vietnam and campaigned for co-education. i just want to win and all i see those who just cant get there. they just dont inspire belief, like lou or ara. kelly, i give him credit, 12-0, but the alabama game, left me speechless. and the betrayal of talking to the eagles to be was a total betrayal of the team, the school, the legacy. it is the greatest football job in america. and grass. i just saw swarbrick make a decision that changed 75 years of notre dame tradition, in a weekend. i believe kelly can and may redeeem himself. but a national championship comes once in a lifetime. all i have done is pushed and shoved on what i believe is good for our sacred legacy. i know you understand that very well. but, others do not. i am reminded of the time i was standing next to coley obrien in the halls of congress and some one came over and mocked him a little saying: “you know coley was a big football hero,” i said to him and and i say it now to those who dont understand, “my friend, you have no idea.” god bless the irish.

    1. Look, I don’t always, or even often, agree with bj, but I’ve never questioned, like some here, this man’s loyalty to the university or its football team. This latest post should shut up those who dismiss bj’s love of the Irish. I’m sure we’ll continue to disagree about this or that. But I for one respect bj’s love for the colors.

    2. bj,

      I like the post, we disagree a lot but I respect your opinion. I feel some traditions need to go at ND in order for it to compete, but they should never sacrifice their values for wins. As far as field turf is a concern, it is more of a safety issue with me. The team had way to many slips and injuries at home for them not to switch to a better playing surface. If they are able to find and develop a better grass surface I am all for it, but it’s just to hard to grow grass in the North for football. Look at the old films it was mostly played on mud.

  8. Burgundy, Ron this is for you: In four seasons at Notre Dame Kelly’s Irish have played 13 games in each season.

    Kind of makes one wonder how many times Holtz played 13 games, doesn’t it.

    Now I ain’t an actuary but some would believe that the more games you play increases the possibility of losses.

    At the risk of confusing prejudice with the facts I won’t publish the data.

    Oh heck, why not!!

    Holtz played 13 only twice, 11 games twice and 12 games 7 times.

    Well heck they say that one is entitled to his or her own opinions but not his or her own facts.

  9. Tiresome, you are bj.

    Isaiah McKenzie was the guy a natural born kick returner.
    But it came apart at the end. You can criticize the execution, but not the identification.

    Apropros all that, you might want to check to see why the Irish and Cooks are so hot on the trail of Ryan Newsome. Or actually you probably wouldn’t.

    Emotional spewing is your modus operandi. But riddle me this, do you actually LOVE Notre Dame and enjoy its football games??????

  10. I never said 1993 was #2. What I said was 1993 was a title year in most eyes. Even with just the one title Lou IS miles ahead of Kelly. Lou had 8 top 20 finishes, 5 top 10 finishes and 4 top 5 finishes. Let Kelly come anywhere near that and I’d be happy. And tell me just where is the program? Is it better now? Yes. But Kelly has lost 4 or more games in 3 of his 4 years and 2 of those years were 5 loss seasons. Has the talent improved? Yes. Improved enough to win a national title? Not even close. And this year will be another 3 loss season which is now the new norm. No Kelly is not the answer. Drink up.

    1. In 7 of 11 seasons Lou lost 3 or more games. So is a 3 loss season the new norm as you say or Lou’s norm?

      Again, I’m not here to bash Lou as I like most love the guy. But I do believe BK is a good hire and has done a great job getting this program out of the gutter.

      Will he win 1 title like Lou? I have no idea but they’re closer now than they have been in 20 years.

      And don’t worry, I’m drinking plenty for the both of us.

      Stay classy!

      1. And what did Lou do in those other 4 seasons? All top 10 finishes. And even Charlie got ND to 2 BCS bowl games in his 5 years. How about BK? And if you think ND is closer to winning a title than in the past 20 years when then your drinking must be heavier than I thought.

      2. So 36% of Lou’s seasons ended in a Top 5 finish and BK is at 25%. You’re right, a massive difference.

        If we are going to compare Big Chuck to BK I will need to make a beer run.

    1. Let me see if I can do this complex math……yes it appears Lou has a seemingly insurmountable lead of exactly 1.

      However, if we look deeper Kelly actually has the lead. Your question asks how many national titles. In that case Kelly leads 2-1.

      Wow, I’m exhausted. Time to drink a Labatts and read the comments from our new neighbor to the the north.

      1. Sorry but national titles at a lower level does not count. And while Lou technically only won one 1993 was a number 2 in most eyes. And how many top 10 finishes for Lou compared to Kelly. I said from day one Kelly is not the right guy for ND and I’m sticking to my story. Now go drink your booze and get loaded by yourself. Enjoy.

      2. Btw I’m not trying to compare D1 and D2 titles as equal but your assertion is that Lou is miles ahead of BK in titles is not accurate.

        I love Lou like every other fan but I think BK has already proven to be a good hire. Look at where the program is vs when he took over.

        Now pass the bourbon.

  11. I sort of agree on Tuitt. He had a back injury which is a big deal and he couldn’t work out or run so his weight exploded. At times when he was healthy he was dominant. I think once he’s back in shape he will be great. I just keep remembering when he picked up that fumble and outran everyone to the endzone. I was like “wow, this guy this size can run THAT FAST”?

    I also think Zack Martin will be an above average tackle for 10-12 yrs in the league. Great pick by whoever gets him.

    Still think Troy Niklas is an idiot for coming out.

  12. I firmly believe that a Mr Stephon Tuitt will be a first-rounder no worse than on his way to Denver and he is a pro-bowler in two years. Zach and Louis will go before him.

  13. Funny I was just recently thinking about this. I see these draft statistics continuing to trend upward. After this year’s class, we get into the real meat of Kelly’s recruiting. Meaning that up until this class, it hasn’t been the guys that Kelly brought in, who were groomed in the new Irish program.

    I feel that Kelly’s recruiting and development has greatly exceeded those of his predecessors. Sure guys like Wies brought in huge flashy offensive recruits, but they fell victim to mediocre and even poor seasons due to decencies all over the field. Kelly’s blend of recruiting, development, and winning will be paying huge dividends on draft day.

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