No mixed messages in Notre Dame's resurgent NFL connection

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In between the offseason weight-lifting sessions that elite offensive line prospect Josh Lugg imposes on himself, he takes it upon himself to also play amateur recruiter.

“I don’t try to hassle them,” the Notre Dame verbal commit and high school junior from Wexford, Pa., said when contacting ND’s uncommitted recruiting targets.

“I just let them know we really want them and that they can be part of something great.”

Part of his pitch is the NFL dream, a trajectory Lugg’s status as the No. 76 player nationally in the 2017 recruiting cycle, per Rivals.com, is certainly on at this juncture.

And he can tell you what that dream looks like from an ND perspective, painting a picture by the numbers.

Lugg knows the 10 players Notre Dame is sending to the already-in-progress NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis represent the second-highest figure in all of college football this year. He also knows the message that number sends to players considering Notre Dame as their next football step beyond high school.

“It’s big,” he said. “I pay attention to it. All recruits pay attention to it. They want that opportunity, to have a real shot at the NFL when college is over. There’s no question the Notre Dame coaches give you that.”

Brady Quinn, a former first-round draft choice out of Notre Dame back in 2007 and a current NFL and college football analyst for FOX, sees a similar big picture.

But both Quinn and Lugg know the player development story that’s evolving at Notre Dame under seventh-year Irish head coach Brian Kelly is oversimplified by zeroing in on only this year’s large combine contingent.

To wit, ND sent one player to the combine last year and had just that one player drafted, seventh-rounder Ben Koyack. Next season the Irish figure to have only 10 players total with expiring eligibility on a freshman/sophomore-heavy roster, not all of whom project as next-level players.

And the last time the Irish garnered this many combine invites (10 in 2002), Notre Dame was roughly three months removed from deposing its head coach, Bob Davie, with four years remaining on his contract.

The Irish had sent six to the combine the previous year and eight each of the two years following the 2002 mob, all Davie-recruited players. Nine months after that second group of eight went through the 2004 combine, ND fired Davie’s successor, Tyrone Willingham.

“Brian Kelly’s player development skills and those of his staff are real,” Quinn said in a phone interview Tuesday. “And there are several layers to it. It’s not just about the NFL Draft. He ends up bringing about basically a more complete player from start to finish, as these guys go on into the NFL.

“So he wins big games along the way.”

It starts with consistent high-level of recruiting, Quinn said. But that goes hand in hand with building a culture, in which not-only the elite-level recruits, such as Quinn himself and Lugg, would succeed, but there are plenty of success stories with prospects who didn’t garner as many offers, attention or recruiting stars.

The best two examples in this particular draft class are center Nick Martin, a former three-star prospect who may go as high as the second round in the April 28-30 NFL Draft, and running back C.J. Prosise, another three-star recruit who changed positions twice at ND and is certain to be drafted, though his projected round isn’t as defined yet at this stage of the process as Martin’s is.

“He’s got a program and a system,” Quinn said of Kelly. “He knows how to run it and has been successful running it throughout his career. And the best example of seeing how well that comes together is looking at this past season.

“You had players go down, and you saw a good job of players coming in and filling those voids. It goes to show you they’re being coached well and taught well. It’s not just about talent. It has to do with coaching, and their ability to develop these guys.”

The sometimes overlooked piece in the NFL part of the player development picture was Kelly's first begrudging, then gradual ability to embrace it, sell it, marry it to everything Notre Dame stands for.

Just as any coach coming in will do, he spent much of his first year in 2010 defining the differences between predecessor Charlie Weis and himself.

Weis flashed his Super Bowl rings during recruiting visits, flaunted his still-active NFL connections to the biggest names in coaching at that level and encouraged his players to be open about their next-level aspirations.

What Kelly has achieved, perceptually at least, is balance, but it started out as almost aversion.

“I don't know that we go around and pound our chests about that,” Kelly said of his NFL-connection numbers, about which he actually has plenty to crow.

From 2000-11, Notre Dame produced a grand total of two first-rounders, Quinn in 2007 and center Jeff Faine in 2003. If offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley and linebacker Jaylon Smith go in the first round two months from now, as expected, Kelly will have coaxed six first-rounders in the last five draft cycles.

And if that pair he recruited both go in the top 15 picks overall, that will be the first time for Notre Dame teammates since Rick Mirer (2) and Jerome Bettis (10) in 1993.

“If, for example, one school wants to say Notre Dame can't do that or doesn't do it, we can have a really, really good conversation about how we have done that,” Kelly said. “We'd prefer not to.''

“We think we've got other things that are higher on the list, but when we do get to that, we will highlight the guys that have developed and succeeded in the NFL and developed in this program in particular over the last six years.”

Kelly still likes to characterize the recruits who chose Notre Dame as shopping down a different aisle. But he now realizes the NFL opportunity has to be one of the staples they find in that aisle.

And he’s come to peace with the notion that early entries are part of successful programs.

In the decade leading up to Kelly being named as Notre Dame’s head coach in December of 2009, Notre Dame had a total of five early entries — true juniors, or seniors who turned away a fifth-year option,

In the last three draft cycles, he’s had 10 if you count cornerback KeiVarae Russell. The NFL doesn’t count him as one, because Russell would have had to petition the NCAA for eligibility in 2016 because of an academic-related suspension in 2014.

But with Russell, the Irish have 12 early entries during Kelly’s time as ND’s coach. Only seven schools have more during that time frame — LSU (28), Alabama (18), Florida (17), USC (16), Florida State (15), Clemson (15) and Stanford (13).

“One of the things you have to do now (in building your next recruiting class) is you've got to look at and anticipate any juniors that may leave,” Kelly said. “I think that's the reality today.”

If Lugg is any indication, the reality is recruits aren’t receiving mixed messages that a high academic profile and NFL development are mutually exclusive, but rather that they’re concepts that knit together.

“I know with my future position coach, Harry Hiestand, he gets his players ready, whether it’s for their careers outside of football after Notre Dame or moving onto the pros,” Lugg said. “I know the other ND coaches do the same.

“The NFL is a dream for everybody since you’re little, but with Notre Dame we know if something happens where we can’t go pro, we have something to set us up for what comes after football and that we’ll be OK.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, here talking to quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) during practice, says the NFL connection is only part of the player development picture. (Tribune photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)