Analysis: Brian Kelly is loving the NFL Draft and it's loving him back

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CHICAGO — Brian Kelly schmoozed in the green room and strode down the red carpet, never once worrying what kind of fashion statement his “no-I-didn’t-lose-a-bet” plaid jacket was making.

Louder and more significant was the statement his Notre Dame football program was about to make at the Auditorium Theatre Thursday night and figures to as well over the 48 hours that follow.

That ND offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley’s selection as the sixth overall player in the 2016 NFL Draft — by the Baltimore Ravens — had all kind of historic overtones was only part of the story. What figures to follow over the next two days and six rounds of the draft, and on the field in the fall, makes it all that more momentous.

First the history.

Stanley on Thursday became the first Notre Dame player at any position to come off the board in the first top 10 picks since defensive tackle Bryant Young went to the 49ers at No. 7 in 1994, the same year Stanley was born.

He’s the first offensive lineman from Notre Dame to go in the top 10 since George Kunz was plucked by the Atlanta Falcons No. 2 overall in 1969. Quarterback Rick Mirer in 1993, going No. 2 to Seattle, was the last time an Irish player had a shorter wait in the green room.

The first player who went to high school in Nevada to go in the first round in 12 years, Stanley came to Notre Dame as the nation’s No. 176 college prospect and heads to the NFL 170 places higher. Hardly rags to riches, but it’s a significant bump.

“One of the things I look for are kids who haven’t hit their stride yet,” Kelly, ND’s seventh-year head coach, said Thursday while unwinding in a reception room. “Remember, when we started recruiting him, Ronnie was a basketball player in his mind. We’re having a lot of success with those kind of players at Notre Dame.”

Another of those late striders, wide receiver Will Fuller, went later in the first round Thursday night — at No. 21 to the Houston Texans. He was the No. 176 player nationally in the next (2013) class, following Stanley’s.

Those kind of story lines speak to Kelly’s player development mantra every bit as much as the sheer numbers of this class will eventually before the weekend is out. It has a chance to both tie for the most ND players drafted in the first three rounds (7) and over seven rounds (10).

And depending on how the late rounds go, Notre Dame (485 coming into Thursday) may overtake arch-rival USC (489) for the most NFL draft picks of all time by Saturday night.

But those seismic milestones coincide with a profound cultural shift that was more evident than ever in recent months.

And that’s what allowed Kelly to embrace Thursday night what he once kind of tolerated — right down to Stanley’s mother’s smile being brought to you by Oil of Olay, Jaylon Smith’s knee rehab being sponsored by Visa, and Sheldon Day making some kind of deal with Skittles that resulted in what looks like a decade-long supply being delivered to his home.

It’s not hard to see how Kelly and the NFL Draft got off on an acrimonious note.

Quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wide receiver Golden Tate bolted as true juniors for the 2010 NFL Draft three days before Kelly was hired to replace Charlie Weis in December of 2009. They did stop by his office to say hello and goodbye a few days later.

In the weeks that followed, Kelly sensed the players Clausen and Tate left behind more than intermittently had NFL dreams that were out of proportion in his mind to ND’s mission and Kelly’s desire to chase national titles. Down deep, he figured and hoped to marry the concepts someday.

But it didn’t come quickly or easily.

“I think when it started to change was when Michael Floyd came back (for his senior season in 2011),” Kelly said. “And then when Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert came back for 2012. I think that coincided with the change.

“Michael really had to come back to establish himself, but Manti and Tyler and later Zack Martin changed the entire culture, that you can be about Notre Dame — graduate and chase championships — and still have and live the NFL dream.”

Just like Stanley, who chose to come back after Kelly and athletic director Jack Swarbrick went to visit him in Las Vegas after the 2014 season.

“We made a promise to him that if he came back to Notre Dame, we would fulfill what we promised him,” Kelly said. “He would get his degree and he would become a better player. And I think that came to fruition tonight.”

What also may come to fruition is ND skipping a rebuilding year after a large draft class, at least recent history says so.

Per Bill Landis of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, there have been 10 occasions since 2000 in which schools lost players in double-digit quantities to the NFL Draft. None of those teams went worse than 8-5 the ensuing season, and one of them —2013 Florida State — won the national title.

Overall, those teams were a combined 115-16 (.878) before the big draft class and 100-29 (.775) the season after it. It speaks to programs that recruit and develop at a high level, which is where Notre Dame finds itself at the moment.

Loudly, as loud as the plaid jacket.

“Hey,” Kelly said with a laugh. “That’s a special jacket. I wear it whenever we want good karma.”

Mission accomplished.

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly (left) and offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley celebrate the Irish All-American's selection Thursday night in the first round of the NFL Draft.