Notebook: Brian Kelly gets real about dealing with players' NFL dreams

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly doesn’t try to pretend that the only thing potentially distracting his Notre Dame football players from their playoff date with Clemson is this coming week’s final exams.

NFL dreams, NFL agents, NFL decisions all figure to percolate with the elite juniors as well as seniors with fifth-year options this time of year, a reality with which the ninth-year Notre Dame head coach takes a proactive approach.

“We begin this process in the spring,” Kelly said Saturday after third-ranked Notre Dame (12-0) staged its first full practice in preparation for its Dec. 29 College Football Playoff semifinal with the No. 2 Tigers (13-0) at Arlington, Texas.

“We’ve had some success with players who have had to answer these kinds of questions: When do I deal with the agent? How do I deal with it? We take the time in spring to sit down with all of our guys and talk through a timetable as to how to handle it and how we will help them with it.

“So they’re not in a stressful situation as we prepare right now. Their parents can handle any decisions for them relative to representation. We will handle evaluations for them and inquiries, so they know we’ll put them in the best position moving forward and they can focus on what’s most important.”

In the 30 drafts since the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen for the first time, the Irish have had 16 true juniors walk through them. Eight of those 16, including NFL rookies Equanimeous St. Brown and Josh Adams, have come in the past five draft cycles.

That doesn’t count the many Irish players who got their degree, but left a year of college eligibility on the table instead of coming back for a fifth year — something Colts rookie offensive guard and top 10 draft pick Quenton Nelson did in the last draft.

Part of Kelly’s proactive process is submitting requests on behalf of players who want feedback from the NFL Draft advisory board. Teams are allowed a maximum of five player requests, and Kelly acknowledged Saturday that the Irish used their full allotment.

He declined to identify which five players were involved.

“I stopped doing that (revealing the players’ names) a couple of years ago,” Kelly said, “in case they didn’t want that information out there.”

Players with remaining eligibility, and that includes seniors with fifth-year options, must declare for the 2019 NFL Draft by Jan. 14 — exactly one week after the CFP National Championship Game is to be played in Santa Clara, Calif.

Junior cornerback Julian Love, a first-team All-American per the Walter Camp Foundation, is ND’s highest-profile draft prospect with remaining eligibility. He’s consistently been in ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s top 25 prospects overall and shows up regularly as a first-rounder in the early mock drafts.

Senior tight end Alizé Mack is the one ND player definitely with a foot out the door, having accepted an invite to the Jan. 26 Senior Bowl and forgoing his fifth-year option.

Even when a player goes the other way and makes an early declaration that they’re staying in school, as former Irish All-America offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey did in October of 2016, agents tend to ignore it.

“I thought I was pretty clear,” McGlinchey said last season. “People trying to make money off of you or people trying to benefit off what you’re doing, they don’t really give a s- — about what your wants and desires are, whether you’re trying to put it to bed or not.”

At least Kelly feels he and his staff have a good handle now on who’s going and who’s staying, which is even more critical in the scholarship numbers game, now with an early December signing period.

“We’ve vetted all of our guys and have a good sense of where we are relative to the NFL,” Kelly said.

Investing in Banks

Players who forge prominent roles as freshmen aren’t the only beneficiaries of early enrollment. Sophomore offensive guard Aaron Banks, per Kelly, is seeing the residual effects of doing so in winter semester of 2017.

Banks, who redshirted in 2017, ascended to a starting role in late October this season as the long-term solution to the Irish losing grad senior Alex Bars to a season-ending knee injury on Sept. 29. The 6-foot-6, 319-pound Banks started the final five games of the regular season.

“I can’t see a down side to our early enrollees,” said Kelly, whose 2019 recruiting class will include a school-record 10 of them, almost 50 percent of the class.

“In terms of acclimating to Notre Dame and from a football standpoint, I would say, yes, getting that extra semester certainly helped (Banks) accelerating.

“It could have been another year for him, for him learning and figuring it out if he didn’t have — I am such a proponent of that. That semester is really like a full year for some of these guys.”

Banks is a key figure in the Clemson-Notre Dame playoff matchup, with the Irish facing two of the best interior lineman in the entire FBS in senior Christian Wilkins and junior Dexter Lawrence, both of whom are considered sure-fire first-round draft choices.

Banks’ capacity for improvement would seem to expand significantly now that the Irish are out of weekly gameplan mode and that exams will wrap up late this coming week.

“The academic piece is so large,” Kelly said. “When you can feel comfortable handling your academics, you’re able to come over here and really invest yourself without a lot of distractions. And so I think you start there more than anything else.

“When you’re distracted academically, it’s hard to give everything that you have. And I think that’s probably the biggest thing that you’re able to do.”

Personnel matters

Sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa on Saturday went through his first full practice since late August. He remains on a path that will allow him to play in a key backup role in the postseason.

“He’s not in any football shape, but he’s moving around fine,” said Kelly of the 6-3, 285-pound sophomore, who suffered a broken foot Sept. 1 against Michigan and underwent surgery two days later.

“We’ll get him ready to compete, but we’re going to need all three weeks to get him back into football conditioning. He’s been running without any ill effects. Fifteen to 20 plays (in the playoff game)? I think he’s capable of doing that, yes.”

And the Ewa Beach, Hawaii product can do so — and play in a potential title game — and still redshirt this season, thanks to the NCAA’s new redshirt rule.

• Without naming names, Kelly acknowledged looking at some possible speed options from his freshman class Saturday in a practice otherwise formatted specifically for his first- and second-teamers.

“Guys that can possibly help us beat Clemson, those are the guys that I want to integrate,” Kelly said.

The likely candidates in that pool would comprise wide receivers Braden Lenzy, Lawrence Keys III and Joe Wilkins Jr.

“We’ve got a couple of guys on audition,” Kelly said, “so we’ll see if there’s a Gong Show or if there’s somebody who can actually come up and do something.”


• Kelly adjusted the pre-Christmas break a bit for his players. They’ll now finish practicing in South Bend on Dec. 20 and go home that same day. Then they’ll report at the playoff site on Dec. 23. The whole schedule is moved up a day from what it was previously.

• Before launching into a serious answer, Kelly had a little fun when pressed about why Clemson coach Dabo Swinney had been such a consistent winner.

“He’s only played us once?” Kelly said with a laugh.

• And then there was this zinger, when asked about what Kelly likes about getting back into a practice routine: “I like this a whole lot better than being on the road, sleeping in hotels, and going to award shows where we should get the awards but we don’t.”

Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love, left, has been projected as a possible first-rounder in the 2019 NFL Draft if the junior elects to come out early.