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NFL Ready? Irish players still aren’t there

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With the heart of the NFL draft set for Saturday, a handful of Irish prospects waited to hear their names called. But as rounds four through seven slid by, no Irish players were drafted after the Vikings selected Kyle Rudolph in the second round on Friday. Seven rounds, and only one player from Notre Dame selected. If you’re looking for schools that had a better weekend than the Irish, you don’t have to look far.

In a weird twist of fate, it was Brian Kelly on set with the NFL Network’s Rich Eisen, Charles Davis and Mike Mayock, watching as Ian Williams, Darrin Walls, Armando Allen and a handful of other Irish seniors failed to entice an NFL team to take a chance on them.

For as at home as Kelly seemed on TV, talking about player development and a path to the NFL (definitely not a small-timey performance by BK), it was clear that the marketplace had spoken on Notre Dame’s job of producing football players — mostly under head coaches Charlie Weis, Ty Willingham and Bob Davie — and the results aren’t pretty.

Under Weis, known as an elite recruiter, the Irish had only six players drafted from 2009 to 2011, ranking them 40th in college football, well behind programs like TCU, Utah, Pitt, Brian Kelly’s Cincinnati team, UConn, South Florida, and Rutgers. It’s been almost 20 years since the Irish have had a Top 15 player, when Bryant Young went seventh in the 1994 NFL Draft. (Only Renaldo Wynn, Luke Petitgout, Jeff Faine, and Brady Quinn have been first-round draft picks since Lou Holtz left Notre Dame.)

Here are the recruits signed by Charlie Weis that heard their name called during the NFL Draft.

2009 — David Bruton, 4th Round – Denver Broncos (Three-star recruit)
2010 — Jimmy Clausen, 2nd Round – Carolina Panthers (Five-star recruit)
2010 — Golden Tate, 2nd Round – Seattle Seahawks (Four-star recruit)
2010 — Sam Young, 6th Round – Dallas Cowboys (Five-star recruit)
2010 — Eric Olsen, 6th Round – Denver Broncos (Four-star recruit)
2011 — Kyle Rudolph, 2nd Round – Minnesota Vikings (Five-star recruit)

There’s plenty of ways to analyze that output, but none stack up all that favorably for Weis, the Irish, or their ability to develop and produce NFL-ready players, which goes a long way in explaining why the Irish haven’t played as good of football as their fanbase would expect.

For a coach that recruited players into an NFL system and comes from a lineage filled with Canton-level coaches, there’s no good way to understand Weis’ inability to produce players with the talent he allegedly brought to campus, except to blame his ability to identify and develop high school athletes into excellent college football players.

In 2005, working with a class started by Tyrone Willingham, Weis was able to cobble together a recruiting class 15 strong, rated 40th in the country by Rivals. It produced David Bruton. In 2006, Weis’ monster class of 28 was rated 8th best in the country, but only yielded 6th rounders Sam Young and Eric Olsen. The 2007 class, again ranked 8th in the country, was a little more star-heavy, and produced the best output of the Weis era, with Clausen and Tate going in round two, and Gary Gray looking like he’ll have the chance to get selected next year. The 2008 class has already produced Rudolph, will see Michael Floyd get drafted, and likely see an NFL team take a shot on guys like Dayne Crist, Darius Fleming, and potentially a guy like Kapron Lewis-Moore or Ethan Johnson. (We’ll have the Manti Te’o, Cierre Wood, and Zack Martin conversation later.)

If we want to play the “let’s look back at the recruiting rankings” and draw conclusions, Matt Hinton at the very excellent Dr. Saturday blog does just that. At first glance, the hit-rate that Rivals produced is indeed pretty impressive. But if you’re looking to dig a little bit deeper and maybe even get to the problem of why the Irish (let’s just keep this to the Charlie Weis era) have struggled, consider the process in which Weis assembled a roster.

Of the guys that were drafted out of Charlie Weis’ Irish program, half of them had all but punched their ticket before they got to the program, with Clausen, Young and Rudolph all five-star recruits. Rudolph and Clausen left the program after three seasons, getting the absolute least development from Irish coaching as possible, while a guy like Sam Young — starting every game of his Irish career — never managed to develop into more than just a bottom of the draft type of player, something he probably was when he first stepped foot on campus in 2006. Golden Tate, another three-year player in the Irish football program, ascended quickly, going from a freshman season with only six catches to a 18 touchdown, Biletnikoff Award winning junior year. But Tate’s development as a football player was far from complete, struggling in his first season in the NFL, failing to have more than four catches in a game or a single touchdown, all while being held off the stat-sheet or out of uniform for five games.  Topping off the problems of the Weis era, only Bruton came from the defensive side of the ball.

As Brian Kelly sat on the NFL Network’s set during Saturday’s draft festivities, he had an illuminating conversation with Mike Mayock, Rich Eisen and Charles Davis about developing NFL-caliber players and winning college football games. Quite simply, it isn’t Kelly’s job to develop NFL players, and he was unapologetic about the fact that the spread offense might not be the best precursor to success in the NFL for quarterbacks. But there’s also a reason that Kelly has had a hand in more players drafted at his two previous coaching stops (Central Michigan and Cincinnati) than Notre Dame has since 2007. It’s his ability to target and develop players for success.

There are far too many reasons why Ian Williams, Darrin Walls, and Armando Allen didn’t get drafted, and blaming coaching transition, poor player development, or underachievement only get you so far. There are also plenty of good reasons why players like Chinedum Ndukwe and Sergio Brown, guys that slipped to the bottom of the NFL Draft or signed via free agency, now have great careers in the NFL.

It’s obviously too soon to grade Kelly’s ability to produce NFL ready talent at Notre Dame, but his ability to look outside the star system and target physical attributes is a good look inside his process of finding good football players. For Irish fans looking for a reassuring trend, consider that Notre Dame, with a roster missing Kyle Rudolph, Theo Riddick, Dayne Crist and Ian Williams finished 8-5 with a schedule rated 22nd by Jeff Sagarin. Meanwhile North Carolina finished 8-5 with the 29th rated schedule. The big difference? The Tar Heels had nine players drafted, the Irish had one.

The role of scrappy over-achiever is certainly uncharted territory, but after the last 15 years, it’s one that Irish fans should certainly embrace. Succeeding during NFL Draft weekend? Let’s just call that a nice little bonus.

Path to the draft: Ronnie Stanley

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Your name didn’t have to be Mel Kiper or Mike Mayock to understand that from the moment Jaylon Smith stepped foot on campus at Notre Dame he was destined to be an early-round NFL draft pick. But as the dust settles on the Irish’s impressive 2016 draft haul, a look back at the developmental process of the team’s seven draft picks serves as a wonderful testament to Brian Kelly and the program he has built.

Notre Dame’s draftees come in all shapes and sizes. Fifth-year seniors like Nick Martin. Three-and-out stars like Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller. Consistent four-year performers like Sheldon Day and one-year wonders like C.J. Prosise.

But each followed a unique path to the NFL, one that was fostered by a coaching staff that allowed each athlete to develop at their own pace and ascend into a role where an NFL team thought highly enough to select each player in the first 103 picks of the draft.

Let’s take a trip down (recent) memory lane, as we connect the dots from recruitment, development and playing career as we look at Notre Dame’s seven success stories.

 

Ronnie Stanley
No. 6 overall to Baltimore Ravens

The first offensive lineman selected in the 2016 draft, Stanley’s recruitment saw the Irish find their first bit of success at Bishop Gorman High School, leading the way to Nicco Fertitta and Alizé Jones. A four-star prospect who hovered between a Top 100 and Top 250 player depending on the evaluation, Stanley was invited to the Semper Fidelis All-Star game, a second-tier game that all but signified his status outside of the elite, at least on the recruiting circuit.

That’s not how Notre Dame’s coaching staff felt about him, though.

“He’s probably as gifted of an offensive linemen that we have seen in many years,” Kelly said on Signing Day in 2012.

Stanley proved early that Kelly wasn’t blowing smoke. He saw the field in 2012’s first two games, earning reps against Navy and Michigan before he suffered an elbow injury that allowed him to save a year of eligibility.

But even offseason surgery didn’t prevent Stanley from stepping into the starting lineup, flipping to right tackle and playing 13 games in a very successful sophomore campaign across from first rounder Zack Martin.

Even though Stanley was blossoming into one of college football’s best players, we still openly wondered who would slide to fill Martin’s left tackle spot. (That’s how it goes with offensive linemen, their work only truly appreciated by those with either inside information or a coach’s eye of evaluation.)

In his opening comments before spring practice in 2014, Kelly named Steve Elmer, Christian Lombard and Mike McGlinchey as candidates along with Stanley, so it wasn’t necessarily a lock for the staff yet either. But it took just a few practices for the Las Vegas native to solidify his spot on the left side.

Stanley’s first season at left tackle was so solid that some wondered if there’d be two. While some of the online analysts saw Stanley as a potentially elite draft pick, the NFL Advisory Board came back with a second-round grade, perhaps all Stanley needed as he made his decision to stick around for his senior season. Still, Notre Dame took no chance. Kelly, Harry Hiestand and Jack Swarbrick traveled to Las Vegas to sell Stanley on the virtues of a final season in South Bend.

It worked. With a healthy offseason and weight-room gains needed, Stanley stuck to the script and played a mostly anonymous 2015 season. That was a very good thing—only along the offensive line can All-American honors and being named Offensive Player of the Year be considered ho-hum.

Add in the vanilla off-the-field life, and an elite academic profile that’s a comfort to teams investing millions in a potential cornerstone, Stanley’s placement as a Top 10 pick should have never been in doubt. While he lacked the dominance at Notre Dame that we saw from Zack Martin, he possesses athleticism and a body that Martin wasn’t given—a big reason the Cowboys shifted him inside to guard from day one.

Picked instead of Laremy Tunsil amidst a bizarre scenario that’ll go down as one of the draft’s cautionary tales, John Harbaugh talked openly about his relationship with Harry Hiestand and the comfort that came from Notre Dame’s offensive line coach as they pulled the trigger on Stanley. And Stanley, almost epitomizing that faith that the Ravens showed, all but embodied that when he told Joe Flacco in his first visit to Baltimore that he celebrated his selection by heading back to his hotel room and going to sleep.

Counted on by Baltimore to be a key piece of the puzzle as the Ravens look to rebuild an offensive line tasked with protecting a franchise quarterback in his prime, now it’s up to Notre Dame’s highest draft pick since Rick Mirer to continue his ascent.

Five Irish players sign UFA contracts

Matthias Farley
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Notre Dame had seven players selected in the 2016 NFL Draft, trailing only Ohio State, Clemson and UCLA on the weekend tally. But after the draft finished, the Irish had five more players get their shot at playing on Sundays.

Chris Brown signed with the Dallas Cowboys. Romeo Okwara will begin his career with the New York Giants. Matthias Farley and Amir Carlisle signed contracts with the Arizona Cardinal. Elijah Shumate agreed to a contract with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

After missing two seasons, Ishaq Williams will be at Giants rookie camp next weekend as well, working as a tryout player. Expect Jarrett Grace to receive similar opportunities.

Count me among those that thought both Brown and Okwara would hear their names called. Brown’s senior season, not to mention his intriguing measureables, had some projecting him as early as the fifth round.

Okwara, still 20 years old and fresh off leading Notre Dame in sacks in back-to-back seasons, intrigued a lot of teams with his ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker. He’ll get a chance to make the Giants—the team didn’t draft a defensive end after selecting just one last year, and they’re in desperate need of pass rushers.

Both Shumate and Farley feel like contenders to earn a spot on rosters, both because of their versatility and special teams skills. Shumate played nickel back as a freshman and improved greatly at safety during 2015. Farley bounced around everywhere and was Notre Dame’s special teams captain.

Carlisle might fit a similar mold. He played running back, receiver and returned kicks and punts throughout his college career. With a 4.4 during Notre Dame’s Pro Day, he likely showed the Cardinals enough to take a shot, and now he’ll join an offense with Michael Floyd and Troy Niklas.

 

Robertson picks Cal over Notre Dame, UGA

Demetris Robertson
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Demetris Robertson‘s decision wasn’t trending in Notre Dame’s direction. But those that expected the Savannah star athlete to pick the in-state Bulldogs were in for a surprise when Robertson chose Cal on Sunday afternoon.

Notre Dame’s pursuit of the five-star athlete, recruited to play outside receiver and hopefully replace Will Fuller, likely ended Sunday afternoon with Robertson making the surprise decision to take his substantial talents to Berkeley. And give credit to Robertson for doing what he said all along—picking a school that’ll give him the chance to earn an exceptional education and likely contribute from Day One.

“I am excited to take my talents to the University of California, Berkeley. The first reason is that the education was a big part of my decision. I wanted to keep that foundation,” Robertson said, per CFT. “When I went there, it felt like home. Me and the coaching staff have a great relationship. That’s where I felt were the best of all things for me.”

Adding one final twist in all of this is that Robertson has no letter-of-intent to sign. Because he’s blown three months through Signing Day, Robertson merely enrolls at a college when the time comes. That means until then, Kirby Smart and the Georgia staff will continue to sell Robertson on staying home and helping the Dawgs rebuild. Smart visited with Robertson Saturday night and had multiple assistant coaches at his track meet this weekend.

Summer school begins in June for Notre Dame. Their freshman receiving class looks complete with early enrollee Kevin Stepherson and soon-to-arrive pass-catchers Javon McKinley and Chase Claypool.

Sheldon Day drafted in 4th round by Jaguars

North Carolina v Notre Dame
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Former Notre Dame captain Sheldon Day didn’t have to wait long on Saturday to hear his name called. The Indianapolis native, All-American, and the Irish’s two-time defensive lineman of the year was pick number 103, the fourth pick of the fourth round on Saturday afternoon.

Day was the seventh Irish player drafted, following first rounders Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller, second round selections Jaylon Smith and Nick Martin, and third rounders KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

Day has a chance to contribute as he joins the 24th-ranked defense in the league. Joining a draft class heavy on defensive players—Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack and Yannick Ngakoue already picked ahead of him—the front seven will also include last year’s No. 3 overall pick Dante Fowler, who missed the entire season with a knee injury.

Scouted by the Jaguars at the Senior Bowl, Day doesn’t necessarily have the size to be a traditional defensive tackle. But under Gus Bradley’s attacking system (Bradley coordinated the Seahawks defense for four seasons), Day will find a niche and a role in a young defense that’s seen a heavy investment the past two years.