Notre Dame Football And The NFL Draft In The Brian Kelly Era

With the upcoming NFL draft in Philadelphia on the doorstep, and a number of Irish players eagerly awaiting their name to be called, the subject of player development inevitably arises. The NFL draft is always a pretty good gauge of how a program develops it’s players. Conventional wisdom prior to last season was that Brian Kelly did an adequate to above average job of developing the talent on his team. That line of thinking took a major hit when his program deteriorated last season; players showed up overweight, were sloppy and fundamentally unsound.

So how has he really done? I took a look at the draft numbers for some clues.*

*I started the chart with the 2012 draft. I didn’t think Rudolph should be assigned to Kelly, who he had for only one season and spent a lot of it injured. Basically, anyone he had for two years counted for me. Also, I counted Jaylon Smith as a first rounder, because for all intents and purposes he was. The guy was picked higher in 2016 with a shredded knee than a fully healthy Manti Te’o in 2013.

 1st Rd2nd Rd3rd Rd4th Rd5th Rd6th Rd7th RdTotal
Five Star213
Four Star423123217
Three Star111126
Total744225226

By and large, Kelly and his staff have actually done fairly well, especially compared to those before them. Over the last five drafts, Kelly has produced more first round picks (7) than the previous 17 drafts (4) combined. That is a time span between 1995 and 2011, which covers the end of the Holtz era, and all of Davie, Willingham, and Weis. And he has done so without an influx of five star talent.

Of the first round players in the Kelly era, just two of the seven were five star talents (Jaylon Smith and Michael Floyd), while one, Tyler Eifert, was a middle of the pack three star (.8567 composite rating)  and Zach Martin (.8917), Harrison Smith (.8917) and Will Fuller (.9005) were all borderline four star players, at the very bottom of those rankings. All three of those players had at least one service, if not two, who gave them three star grades.

You can also combine the first two rounds in the draft and Kelly comes out favorable against his predecessors by that metric as well. From 1995-2011, 17 players were selected in the first two rounds compared to Kelly’s 11 in the five drafts attributed to him. If you exclude the Holtz years, it’s 13 to 11. If Kelly turned out players in the first two rounds at the same rate he is currently for another 12 drafts, to match the comparison, he’d be at 37 players drafted in rounds one and two over a 17 year period.

Harrison Smith And Tyler Eifert

Probably the two best examples of player development under Kelly.

Smith was seen as a good athlete who didn’t have a position and was best known for bone headed plays and a late hit against UConn that sparked their rally from down 14-0 in 2008. He was playing out of position at linebacker with Charlie Weis and John Tenuta, and looked like a mess. In 2010, Kelly and Bob Diaco moved Smith to free safety where he amassed 181 tackles, 17 passes broken up, and 7 interceptions. He’s now one of the best safeties in the NFL and just signed a 5 year, 51 million dollar contract.

Eifert was rated the 569th best prospect in 2009 and the 21st tight end in the nation. In other words, he was a flier. What he turned into was the prototype tight end of the modern era, with the ability to get up the seem against linebackers and also play out wide against corners. In his two years as the starter in 2011 and 2012, he brought in 113 receptions for 1,488 yards and nine touchdowns. The only thing that has slowed down his career in the NFL has been injuries, and in his first season as the full time starter he brought in 13 touchdown passes.

Kelly, Quarterbacks, and DeShone Kizer In The Draft

One of the biggest criticisms of Kelly is he can’t develop quarterbacks and that his hands on coaching style actually hurts his quarterbacks. Over time they regress and eventually fall out to the point where they are shells of themselves. Evidence suggests this criticism is true. It also suggests it is false. It all depends in how you look at it.

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On the one hand, Kelly has had four quarterbacks–Dayne Crist, Everett Golson, Malik Zaire, and DeShone Kizer–who were anointed starting quarterback, only to sputter out at the end of their Notre Dame careers, and in fact three of whom (with the exception of Kizer) transferred away before their eligibility was up.

On the other hand, with the exception of Crist, none of those three quarterbacks was considered a big time recruit; the highest rated prospect, Zaire, was the 170th rated player in the nation in 2013. Golson was 296th and Kizer was 216th. All were low four star prospects and all were developed to play excellent football during their time at Notre Dame.

Golson was 31st in quarterback rating his last season as the Notre Dame starter in 2014, just four spots below Heisman Trophy winner and #1 pick Jameis Winston of Florida State, a five star recruit and the #15 player in his class. He threw for 3,400 yards and accounted for 37 touchdowns. Was he not developed? What was he supposed to be? But, he did regress. He went from leading a 7-1 start in 2014–and beginning his career 18-2 as a starter–to being benched and out of the program 5 games later.

The same is true for Kizer in 2017. We think of him as having regressed in development under Kelly because he did. His passer rating dipped from 24th in 2015 to 31st in 2016, and his completion percentage dropped from 63% to 58%. These aren’t huge drops in production and some could be explained away by his losing almost all of his pass catchers from 2015, including first round receiver Will Fuller. But, a player who was once a sure fire top 10 pick may now be sliding out of the first round entirely. And Kelly shoulders a lot of that blame, as he should.

But, why is Kizer in this position in the first place? Because Kelly developed him. He moved the goal posts. Kizer went from “I hope he can hold the fort for us” to “This guy is dropping into the second round what is wrong?” No one expected Golson to be a Heisman candidate, we just wanted a guy fit to run the offense and wasn’t named Tommy Rees. No one expected Kizer to be a top 10 pick in the spring of 2015 when he couldn’t throw and looked like he hated football.

So maybe give Kelly credit for developing Kizer to be where he is today, while also acknowledging he wasted what he developed in Golson and Kizer at the most important position in the game.

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