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 NFL.com. 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

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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 scottjanssenhp@gmail.com.

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43 comments

  1. duranko 5 years ago

    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.

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  2. duranko 5 years ago

    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.

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  3. BJ 5 years ago
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  4. BJ 5 years ago

    YA GOTTA LAUGH SOMETIME

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    1. Jack 5 years ago

      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

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  5. BJ 5 years ago

    WHAT ROCKNE WOULD HAVE DONE. ITS BEFORE THE ALABAMA. “MEN, I GOT A CALL THIS WEEK FROM THE PHILADELPHIA EAGLES WHO WANTED ME TO COME TALK TO THEM ABOUT BEING THEIR COACH. I TOLD THEM THEY HAD NO IDEA WHO THEY WERE TALKING TO. SACIFICE, UNSELFISHNESS, TEAM PLAY, LOYALTY, THESE WERE THE THINGS I BELIEVED AND TAUGHT EVERY DAY. THIS IS THE GREATEST FOOTBALL COACHING JOB IN THE LAND AND THIS IS THE GREATEST FOOTBALL TEAM IN AMERICA. NOW GO SHOW ALABAMA I WAS RIGHT. THEY CANT LICK US. WHAT DO YOU SAY MEN?

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    1. Ron Burgundy 5 years ago

      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?

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    2. Shazamrock 5 years ago

      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???

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    3. JDH 5 years ago

      BJ love carpet. BJ love lamp.

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    4. Jack 5 years ago

      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.

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      1. Ron Burgundy 5 years ago

        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.

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    5. Shazamrock 5 years ago

      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”

      D’oh!

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