Notre Dame football: Success comes with a price

ANALYSIS

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Leave it to Finance major to try to bring some pragmatism to the big emotional snowball of doom that seemingly rolled into Brian Kelly’s world this past week.

Tight end Troy Niklas — largely through his father, Don — provided an economic-driven, spreadsheet-esque explanation as to why he became the 11th three-and-out Notre Dame football player, and third in less than a week’s time, to turn away a senior season at ND since the NFL opened the doors to the draft to underclassmen in 1989.

The pessimist, perhaps still suffering from Bob Davie Era flashbacks, only sees connected, perhaps even apocalyptic, dots — from Niklas to fellow junior defectors George Atkinson III and Stephon Tuitt, to senior Louis Nix’s decision to push away a fifth-year option, to California recruit Matt Dickerson’s family-related defection to UCLA, to junior wide receiver DaVaris Daniels’ academic shortcomings resulting in an exile from Notre Dame for the spring semester.

The extremist will even somehow find a way to work quarterback Gunner Kiel’s 10-month-old decision to pull the plug on his Notre Dame experience, before his freshman year was complete, into the formula.

Strip away the angst, and the reasons for the recent events largely become disjointed. The two very real common threads are these: They all test fifth-year Irish head coach Kelly’s ulcer quotient, and most of them constitute the cost of doing business as an aspiring elite program in this day and age.

That’s particularly true when it comes to the draft-driven defections.

NFL insiders will point out that Kelly, and Charlie Weis before him, have upgraded the talent base consistently and significantly over the two coaching regimes that immediately followed the Lou Holtz Era — Davie (1997-2001) and Tyrone Willingham (2002-04).

Strictly looking at it through the NFL Draft lens, after producing a bounty of six draftees last spring, Notre Dame is on a trajectory to have at least eight players drafted in May, which would comprise its largest contingent since 10 Irish came off the board in 1994.

Should Atkinson and inside linebackers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese improve their current projections slightly, that number could swell to 11, the most since the 17-round, 1969 draft also produced 11. The last time an ND draft contingent numbered more than 11 was the 13 players picked in the 30-round draft of 1950.

Looking at the top of the draft, Notre Dame produced a grand total of two first-rounders from 2000-2011 — center Jeff Faine in 2003 and quarterback Brady Quinn in 2007. But in the past two drafts, the Irish have shown up in the first round three times — Michael Floyd and Harrison Smith in 2012, and Tyler Eifert last April.

Several mocks have three ND players going in the first round four months from now — Tuitt, Nix and fifth-year senior offensive lineman Zack Martin.

How that influx of difference-makers plays out on the college level is that a bigger talent base, when player development and team chemistry are working, produces a program that’s more resilient to adversity and that has a better chance of navigating into the top tier of college football’s postseason.

National champion Florida State, for instance, matches ND’s four early entries (the three juniors and Nix). So does 2012 titleist Alabama, and fellow SEC heavyweights South Carolina and LSU. USC, the program most Irish fans measure the progress of their program against, has five underclassmen leaving.

The challenges that come with that talent/development concoction are a great propensity of bigger egos, bigger dreams, bigger distractions and potentially bigger departures from the idyllic Notre Dame culture of the 1960s that some fans are still convinced can be completely regenerated.

Maximizing the reward in that equation and the extreme internal pressure to squelch the risk is the balance that Kelly wrestles with every day, something many of his contemporaries don’t have to deal with to that degree.

The early entries into the draft may be the most difficult part to control for Kelly.

Niklas outlined a thought process that’s becoming the stock explanation for the number of underclassmen declaring for the 2014 NFL Draft soaring to a record 87 — and counting.

Essentially, the rookie salary scale, which first kicked in for the 2011 draft class, drives an enticement for top-level prospects to come out early, since theoretically the big money now comes into the second NFL contract, not the first.

Factor in the limited life span of an NFL career, and the urgency to start the clock on the first contract after a player’s junior year is a valid theory. The spike from 56 underclassmen in 2011 to 65 in 2012 to 73 in 2013 to possibly more than 100 by Wednesday’s deadline for underclassmen to declare backs that up.

But to paint that as the sole reason pushing the numbers is using too broad of a brush. There are unique sets of circumstances that come into play in almost every draft decision.

Economic need could play a factor, as was the case with Nix. There are players who just can’t stand to attend one more day of class. There are players who want to escape a rift with their coach, who want to avoid being part of rebuilding team, or players who simply get bad advice, as former Notre Dame running back Darius Walker did after the 2006 season.

Walker, a productive college player whose lack of breakaway speed didn’t translate to the NFL game, was convinced that he would go, worst-case scenario, in the second round. He went undrafted.

The percentage of players making ill-advised decisions to enter the draft is trending upward again. The 2009 draft produced only 10.9 percent undrafted underclassman, the best percentage since the first junior-eligible draft in 1994. That spring saw 52 percent land in the rookie free-agent pool.

The last three drafts have seen near or beyond 30 percent of underclassmen go undrafted.

In Niklas’ case, the potential to move up significantly from a second-round projection in 2014 to high in the first round in 2015, per his research, was limited at his position.. History backs that up.

Twice in the past three drafts, the top tight end selected came in the second round. The last time a tight end was selected higher than the 20th pick overall was Maryland’s Vernon Davis in 2006, one of only two tight ends to land in the top 10 dating back to 1997. The highest a tight end ever was chosen was fifth — the University of Houston’s Riley Odoms in 1972 and Da Coach, Mike Ditka, out of Pitt in 1961.

The parameters Tuitt and Atkinson used in forming their decisions were different in many ways than Niklas’ and seemingly involved much less math.

What they share is what causes Kelly uneasiness, that they’re walking away without their degrees, though all are promising to someday attain them.

A source familiar with the process said it’s not that difficult for a pro player to come back and finish, even at a school with the standards of Notre Dame. Most of their required classes, outside their major, have already been taken care of at that point. The ones that would pique their interest the most are the usually the ones left to complete.

But the further they get removed from their most recent semester at ND, the harder it is to restart the process.. Quarterback Jimmy Clausen is one who quickly and diligently restarted the academic process and now has his degree.

There are Notre Dame grads/fans who see even a delay as a clash with what the school stands for.

“I don’t think it’s realistic to think that way,” the source said. “The lifeline to play sports is only so long, But most people don’t go back — that’s the problem. Then when they’re done playing and they’ve blown all their money, they struggle for the rest of their lives.”

It’s a theme that’s going to continue to get played, and maybe get louder, as long as Kelly lands recruits that make his fan base swoon.

“If you want to play with the big boys,” the source said, “there are always going to be challenges that are part of doing business.”

Notre Dame tight end Troy Niklas (85) might be part of a future wave of early NFL draft entries for the Irish. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)

Here are the 11 true juniors from Notre Dame who have entered the NFL Draft since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989. This does not include players, such as Louis Nix, who were seniors and left with their degree in hand but turned down a fifth-year option at ND.

Player                  Pos.    Draft     Rd picked

Raghib Ismail       *WR     1991         4

Jerome Bettis        RB      1993         1

Tom Carter            CB      1993         1

Bobby Taylor         CB      1995         2

Darius Walker        RB      2007    Undrafted

Jimmy Clausen      QB      2010         2

Golden Tate           WR     2010         2

Kyle Rudolph          TE      2011         2

Stephon Tuitt          DE      2014         ?

George Atkinson III  RB      2014         ?

Troy Niklas             TE       2014         ?

* Ismail signed with Toronto of the CFL before the NFL Draft was held, which affected the round he was selected in the NFL Draft.