Notre Dame's quiet draft distorts promising bigger picture

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

At least he wasn’t Mr. Irrelevant.

Impatient? Yes. Impeded of a clear path to make an NFL roster? Check. Inexplicably untethered from Notre Dame’s rep as Tight End U? Well, sort of.

But Irish tight end Ben Koyack’s selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars 27 spots from the end of the three-day, seven-round, 256-pick NFL Draft put a distorted twist on the auspicious big-picture reality regarding ND football’s talent base.

That is, the roster is actually teeming with NFL prospects. It’s just that some of the best and brightest on it won’t be spilling into the draft pool until next spring, when ND may break its record for players drafted in the first seven rounds —10, set in 1994.

It’s also a draft in which ND could produce multiple first-round picks, and it all would come just two years after Irish head coach Brian Kelly produced/developed eight draft picks scooped up last spring.

In between — specifically Thursday, Friday and Saturday — the ND program expectedly experienced one of its quietest and least impactful drafts ever, with Koyack as the lone selection from a small talent pool, stocked with long shots.

“I was hoping my name was going to get called,” Koyack said of his mind-set as the fifth round, where he was most often projected to get selected, passed, then the sixth round and into the seventh.

“I was trying to stay positive, hoping a team would take a chance with me and give me an opportunity to prove myself, and that’s what Jacksonville did.”

The rest of the Notre Dame training camp hopefuls will have to do so via the undrafted free agent route. Wide receiver DaVaris Daniels (Minnesota), cornerback Cody Riggs (Tennessee) and kicker Kyle Brindza (Detroit) were the first to lock down post-draft deals, on Saturday night.

Daniels becomes the second ND draft early entry in as many years to go undrafted, joining running back George Atkinson III from the last draft cycle.

Riggs has an almost opposite story line. Represented by former Notre Dame football player Bobby Brown, his uncle, and two of Brown’s associates, the Florida transfer in two weekends will pick up the master’s degree in business management, which he accomplished in one year.

Linebacker Kendall Moore (Tennessee), running back Cam McDaniel (Dallas) and former ND quarterback Andrew Hendrix (Cincinnati), who finished at Miami of Ohio, all agreed to tryout scenarios on Sunday. Defensive lineman Justin Utupo as well as a handful of ND players who finished their careers elsewhere — among them, Miami (Ohio) tight end Alex Welch and Cincinnati tight end Jake Golic — were still chasing options on Sunday.

The encouraging numbers for the undrafted players is that of the 48 combined starters (including kickers and punters) in Super Bowl XLIX, 12 starting Seahawks and Patriots came into the league through the undrafted free agent route.

The convergence of Koyack’s late-round status and Jacksonville’s tight end-loaded roster hardly make his inclusion on the roster automatic.

But if he does stick through training camp and the roster cutdowns next summer, he’ll join two other former Irish players on the Jags’ roster — offensive tackle Sam Young and free safety Sergio Brown.

“This guy adds a lot of depth throughout,” Jacksonville general manager Dave Caldwell said at a Saturday press conference. “He can play (two of our positions).

“He played in the Senior Bowl, and we like a lot of his traits. He’s big-bodied and athletic and will offer a lot of competition there. Before you ask, we do have the flexibility to keep five (tight ends).”

Koyack’s wait to find out his draft destiny was not only lengthy, but historic. As the 229th pick overall, he technically becomes the latest ND pick ever to be the school’s debut selection in a particular draft.

Quarterback Jarious Jackson was also the first and only Irish player taken in his, the 2000 draft, but he was pick No. 214. There were players selected as the initial ND pick in later rounds than Koyack and Jackson, specifically in the 1940, ’41, ’42 and ’63 drafts.

But the rounds were much shorter then, and none of them came close to being pick 229. Notre Dame didn’t have any players selected in the 1977 draft, but running back Al Hunter was a fourth-round selection in the supplemental draft that year.

In 1937, no Irish players were selected in what was a 10-round, 100-selection process, in the second year of the draft’s existence.

By the time Koyack received his phone call, 45 players who played for ND’s 2014 opponents — including 11 from Florida State — three players named Shaq or Shaquille, a punter, a long snapper (from Navy, no less) and two players from Bob Diaco’s 2-10 UConn team had come off the board.

Fourteen tight ends preceded him, 15 if you count oversized Michigan wide receiver Devin Funchess, who some believe will evolve into a tight end in the NFL sooner than later.

The tight end parade behind second-rounder Funchess went as follows: Maxx Williams of Minnesota, Clive Walford of Miami (Fla.), Tyler Kroft of Rutgers, Jeff Heuerman of Ohio State and the older brother of Irish junior-to-be tight end Mike Heuerman, Blake Bell of Oklahoma — who accounted for 291 yards in total offense as the starting quarterback in the Sooners’ 35-21 win at ND in 2013, MyCole Pruitt of FCS school Southern Illinois, Jesse James of Penn State, Nick Boyle of FCS school Delaware, James O’Shaughnessy of FCS school Illinois State, golfing great Jack Nicklaus’ grandson Nick O’Leary of Florida State, Malcolm Johnson of Mississippi State, Randall Teifer of USC, A.J. Derby of Arkansas, Kennard Backman of the now-defunct UAB program.

Three tight ends followed Koyack later in the seventh round, including the very last pick of the draft — dubbed Mr. Irrelevant — Louisville’s Gerald Christian.

Koyack does become the sixth straight ND starting tight end to get drafted, a string that began after Billy Palmer went unselected 11 drafts ago, but he’s the first in that lineage not to go in the first or second round.

As he entered the season, Koyack was regarded as the top tight end prospect in this draft cycle or close to it. He put up respectable numbers, 30 receptions for 317 yards and two scores in 2014, but scouts questioned his passion as well as his strength and ability to create mismatches.

“When you see the Notre Dame tight ends lately, you see a connotation that comes with it,” said draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “They’ve had so many top prospects at that positon and Koyack’s not in their league.

“He’s a good player, and I think he’s going to play in the league, but he pales in comparison to the top prospects at the position that Notre Dame’s producing in recent years.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6112

@EHansenNDI

Senior tight end Ben Koyack has accepted an invitation to play in the Senior Bowl, Jan. 24 at Mobile, Ala. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)