Notebook: Harry Hiestand's influence pays draft dividends

Eric Hansen and Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Long before Ronnie Stanley got the phone call, Brian Kelly made a phone call that helped change the trajectory of his program.

To Harry Hiestand.

A man who wasn’t in the comfort zone of Kelly’s coaching past, as much of his Notre Dame staff had been. A man whose most recent coaching stop, at the University of Tennessee, prompted indifference — if not mild joy — from the Vols fan base when they found out Kelly was poaching Hiestand.

“I knew what I was looking for when I went to get Harry Hiestand,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune Thursday night from Chicago as one of Hiestand’s star pupils, left tackle Stanley, was being coronated as the No. 6 pick of the 2016 NFL Draft.

And part of Kelly’s vision back in January of 2012 was what it would eventually do for ND in the NFL Draft.

He had just watched his second-year line coach, Ed Warinner, parachute out to join new head coach Urban Meyer at Ohio State. And whomever Kelly hired to replace Warinner would be the program’s fourth offensive line coach in a five-year span.

“I was looking for somebody that had a great relationship with players,” Kelly said, “a coach players really wanted to play for because of his style. Harry had that reputation coming in, both in the NFL and in the college ranks. And he’s delivered from that standpoint.”

The two left tackles Hiestand has coached at Notre Dame, Stanley (Baltimore) and Zack Martin (Dallas), have both been first-round picks. The early rumblings from NFL scouts and draft analysts about senior-to-be Mike McGlinchey is that he appears to be on the same career arc.

Hiestand also put his stamp on center Nick Martin, a second-round pick (50th overall) of the Houston Texans on Friday night.

That gives Hiestand three first- or second-rounders in the past three drafts. That’s one more than ND amassed from 1995 to 2013 combined (Luke Petitgout in 1999 and Jeff Faine in 2003).

“Harry has an NFL pedigree,” Kelly said, referring to Hiestand’s five-year run with the Chicago Bears. “He’s respected in the ranks of the NFL for developing players. They know when Harry gets his hands on them, that they can expect somebody who has been coached in all the fundamentals, that they’ll be ready to move on to the next level.

“Harry’s is a great mentor to these guys. They really enjoy playing for him, so that has been a big piece to Ronnie’s development.”

And one of the first statements from Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh Thursday night was a reference to Hiestand and a phone call he made pre-draft regarding the Ravens’ first-round pick, Stanley.

“You have people you trust in the profession, and that goes a long way,” Harbaugh said of Hiestand. “This is a really, really fine young man and a really good player.”

No second thoughts

Once, Will Fuller committed to Bill O’Brien.

On Thursday night, O’Brien returned the favor.

Fuller became Notre Dame’s second first round pick of the 2016 NFL Draft, as the Houston Texans traded up one slot to nab the dynamic Irish wide receiver with the 21st overall pick. The reunion came nearly four years after Fuller — a 6-foot, 184-pound Philadelphia native — verbally committed to O’Brien and home state power Penn State, before flipping his pledge to Notre Dame roughly two months later.

O’Brien served as the Nittany Lions’ head coach for two seasons, before accepting the same position with the Houston Texans in Jan. 2014.

On Thursday, he addressed the Texans’ future by revisiting his recent past.

“I’ve known him for a while,” O’Brien said. “He came to our camp when I was at Penn State. I don’t know if we were the first to offer him, but I know we saw this guy at our high school camp when I was the head coach there. We offered him right away there when we saw him run around and do some of the things he was doing in high school.”

It turns out, the fleet-footed Fuller wasn’t done turning heads. In his final two seasons in South Bend, Fuller exploded for 138 catches, 2,352 receiving yards yards, 29 touchdowns and 17 yards per reception.

He grew. He evolved.

In turn, O’Brien selected the same person, but a different player.

“He has obviously grown up a lot as a player,” O’Brien said. “He does many more things than what he did in high school. He’s a stronger guy. His football experience has really grown. He’s learned a lot at Notre Dame. One of the things that we like about him is he’s eager to learn. We’re excited about getting him here and getting going with him.”

On Thursday night, Fuller was equally excited — about playing with Brock Osweiler and Deandre Hopkins, about reuniting with fellow Philadelphia native and Texans wideout Jaelen Strong.

About playing for O’Brien, finally.

“I loved the whole coaching staff. I loved everything about Penn State,” Fuller recalled about his original college commitment. “It was close to my hometown. I feel bad that things didn’t hit because I feel like we would’ve had something special at Penn State.”

Instead, he’ll work with O’Brien to create something more special in Houston.

“That’s a dream come true,” Fuller said of his first round selection. “My goal ever since I was seven and started playing football was to play in the National Football League. It was never to go in round one, round two or round three, but wherever I got picked I was going to be satisfied. I’m just happy I got this done the first day.”

Notable numbers

Only 16 Notre Dame players in the first 80 years of the NFL Draft went earlier in their respective draft than offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley did at No. 6 Thursday night in draft No. 81.

The 16 are: No. 1s Angelo Bertelli (1944), Boley Dancewicz (1946), Leon Hart (1950), Paul Hornung (1957) and Walt Patulski (1972); No. 2s George Izo (1960), George Kunz (1969), Mike McCoy (1970), Rick Mirer (1993), Steve Niehaus (1976) and Bob Williams (1951); No. 3 Art Hunter (1954); No. 4s Ralph Guglielmi (1955) and Johnny Lujack (1946); and No. 5s George Connor (1946) and Todd Lyght (1991).

• Between 1970 and 2011, just one Notre Dame receiver was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, that being Heisman Trophy winner Tim Brown in the 1988 draft.

Since, 2012, wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock and Brian Kelly have helped produce twice that many, with Michael Floyd going 13th overall in 2012 and Will Fuller being selected 21st on Thursday night.

Head Coch Brian Kelly and coach Harry Hiestand speak Saturday, August 15, 2015, at the Notre Dame football practice at Labar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ