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NFL Ready? Irish players still aren’t there

May 3, 2011, 11:41 PM EDT


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.

  1. scardino - May 4, 2011 at 9:12 AM

    You lost me at embracing ‘under-achiever’ status.

  2. Keith Arnold - May 4, 2011 at 9:37 AM

    Me too. Fixed it. The dangers of late-night editing…

  3. ndfan4ever - May 4, 2011 at 10:24 AM

    Really does that matter? Look at Duke in basketball how many high draft choices do they have in the NBA and look how that program does. If ND only recuites NFL calibar players then they will all be gone after their junior year anyway. Recuite players that fit you style and they will do fine. They are there to earn a degree and graduate. If they make into the NFL thats great but that shouldn’t be the focus of the progam in my opinion.

  4. fighting69th - May 4, 2011 at 12:57 PM

    Wait until next year

  5. kyleortonsarm - May 4, 2011 at 1:35 PM

    So, why exactly does MSNBC care about the Irish? I don’t see the point of this focus on a single team.

    • ndfootballfan4life - May 4, 2011 at 1:58 PM

      I don’t think MSNBC cares about any football team, but NBC features Notre Dame because they have a TV contract with the football program. At least that’s my guess…..

  6. notredave - May 4, 2011 at 9:45 PM

    Win National Championships at Notre Dame, or be the school that sends the most players to the NFL? I’ll take the NC for the win Alex.

    • nddc21 - May 5, 2011 at 8:16 AM

      Not being argumentative, but it is definitely possible to both send players to the NFL and win a NC, and we have been pretty good at doing neither recently.
      For an interesting, statistics-based take on recruiting vs. player development in schools nationwide, check out this post:
      Some good stuff in there, including a look on ND’s player development vs. wins.

  7. rcali - May 5, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    It took half a season but eventually we started to see “Kelly” ball.

  8. ndbcs2013 - May 6, 2011 at 11:52 AM

    I feel that despite the fact that he embraces the spread, Kelly will deliver a significant increase in players to the NFL during his (hopefully long) tenure at ND. Two reasons:

    1. His targeted, methodical recruiting process and plan, which finds the right bodies and abilities for his three game phases. He has already signed a bunch of stellar athletes, some with high NFL potential, and he will put them into positions that give them opportunities for success on the field.
    2. His emphasis on detail and precision throughout his program. It feels like sloppiness is simply never accepted by BK and his staff, and Floyd might serve as the best example of this difference. A great on-field performer, BK took Michael to task as soon as he came on board for imprecise route running and attention to detail. These things matter hugely in the draft, and improvement in positional understanding and execution can move you onto and up the draft board.

    By the way, I think that both of these things above also lead to winning programs, and I do not at all see this as an either / or scenario between winning vs. getting kids to the NFL. Recruit with purpose and teach (demand) great discipline in execution, and good things will happen on both fronts.

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