Analysis: Notre Dame's Day 3 NFL Draft picks hardly project an afterthought vibe

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

In the final hours Saturday of the quirkiest/perhaps most captivating NFL Draft ever, commissioner Roger Godell had downshifted his wardrobe to a T-shirt, and Bill Belichick’s dog was away from the New England coach’s laptops and probably doing dog things.

Even Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem was refilling his own dog’s food and water bowls at the very moment when the Cincinnati Bengals called him with the news that the NFL’s worst team in 2019 (2-14) was about to make him the first pick of the fifth round.

“I didn’t expect it at the time,” he said about the call from Bengals head coach Zac Taylor, “but I was definitely excited when I got the call.”

If the final four rounds of the three-day, seven-round, 255-player NFL Draft had kind of an afterthought vibe to them, the three Notre Dame players who found out where their pro careers would start during that stretch were most decidedly not afterthoughts.

Not when it came to their parts in touching off a post-2016 renaissance for Notre Dame and head coach Brian Kelly, and likely not for their respective NFL franchises moving forward.

Joining Kareem in a three-day wait were cornerback Troy Pride Jr., a fourth-rounder headed to 92 miles from his Greer, S.C., home to the Carolina Panthers, and safety Alohi Gilman, a sixth-rounder added to an already Notre Dame-heavy roster with the L.A. Chargers.

All six Notre Dame 2020 draftees — including second-rounders Cole Kmet (Bears) and Chase Claypool (Steelers), and third-rounder Julian Okwara (Lions) — outperformed their respective high school rankings, per the top 250.

Tight end Kmet, the No. 43 player taken overall, was the No. 95 player nationally in his recruiting class. The other Irish comparisons go as follows: Claypool 49 (109), Okwara 67 (NR), Pride 113 (NR), Kareem 147 (237) and Gilman 186 (NR).

All six other ND draft hopefuls had agreed to terms as undrafted free agents shortly after the conclusion of the first-ever virtual draft, originally scheduled for Las Vegas before the COVID-19 pandemic forced a revamp.

Safety Jalen Elliott, the biggest surprise among the six not to hear his name called during the actual draft, ended up with the Detroit Lions. The others were wide receiver Chris Finke (San Francisco), running back Tony Jones Jr. (New Orleans), linebacker Asmar Bilal (L.A. Chargers), defensive end Jamir Jones (Houston) and cornerback Donte Vaughn (L.A. Chargers).

The historical overtones of the three Saturday draftees only hints at their significance in the Kelly reboot that’s played out as a combined 33-6 record in the 2017-19 seasons.

Kareem, the second of ND’s two ends to get selected in the 2020 draft, came off the board earlier than all but five Irish defensive ends in the past 30 drafts.

The outliers? Stephon Tuitt (second round, 2014), Victor Abiamiri (second, 2007), Justin Tuck (third, 2005), Anthony Weaver (second in 2002) and Renaldo Wynn (first, 1997).

Pride (113), meanwhile, and 2019 All-America corner Julian Love (108) went five picks apart in drafts separated by a year. The only Notre Dame cornerback to go higher since the 2002 draft was third-rounder KeiVarae Russell, the 74th pick overall in 2016.

Gilman was the first Notre Dame safety drafted in any round since Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta both were taken in the spring of 2013, roughly 3 1/2 months after the Irish played Alabama for the 2012 national title.

Pride in 2019 unselfishly played out of position — into the boundary, where his elite speed wasn’t as much of a factor — out of team need. He still managed to give up just five pass plays of 25-plus yards in his career, out of 175 times being targeted.

Kareem spent his freshman season as largely a bystander during the 4-8 divot on Kelly’s résumé, in 2016. That year, the season Kelly fired coordinator Brian VanGorder four games in, the Irish defensive line, starters and reserves, combined for three sacks. That was the fewest among the 65 Power 5 teams.

This season Kareem amassed 5 1/2 sacks by himself, tying for the team lead, and he did so playing the final 4 1/2 games of his college career with a torn labrum serious enough to require mid-January shoulder surgery.

Incidentally, Kareem said Saturday he’s about 75 percent healthy and expects to be fully recovered by the time NFL training camps traditionally open up in July.

“Anytime you’ve got guys that were leaders in college, that lends itself to being a better leader in the pros,” Bengals defensive coordinator Lou Anarumo observed of Kareem, a captain at ND. “And (especially) at a place like Notre Dame, which obviously is what it is (with him). We’re very excited about him.

“When you’re talking about the length that the kid has — 34 3/8-inch arms, 84-inch wingspan — that’s rare. And that can come into play in a lot of ways, (such as) separation from O-linemen, knocking balls down at the line of scrimmage, and just his overall play and makeup as the (player).”

Gilman may have been the most transformative player of the three at ND, given the state of the safety position group, and easiest the least likely to be.

The two-star recruit from Laie, Hawaii, had so many junctures where both his NFL dream and his confluence with Notre Dame seemed beyond improbable. That includes a soul-testing year at the Naval Prep School in between his senior year at Kahuku High and his freshman year at the Naval Academy.

And had it not been for a rule change by the Department of Defense after Gilman was at Navy, negating deferrals of service to pursue NFL careers, Gilman likely would have never left the Midshipmen.

When he did, he was convinced he’d end up in Los Angeles, at USC, almost to the point he didn’t bother with a visit to Notre Dame. Once he did, he fell in love with the school and the people, and transferred there,

In part because Navy contested the transfer, Gilman’s petition for immediate eligibility was denied for the 2017 season. His impact on the team couldn’t be denied, however.

That included organizing and leading 6 a.m. workouts on Fridays for all the redshirting players and being so intense as a scout-team player in practice that at times the coaches had to throw him out of the sessions.

When VanGorder was purged as the defensive coordinator four games into his third season under Kelly, the facet of the Irish defense that scared successor Mike Elko the most when he was hired in December of ’16 was the safety position group.

In 2017, while the positions around the safeties markedly improved, it became the first year since the inception of two-platoon football (1964) that the safety position group at ND collectively, starters and reserves, didn’t record a single interception.

What’s more, in the five recruiting cycles from 2013 to 2017, the middle three of which had a strong influence from VanGorder, Notre Dame signed 11 high school safety prospects.

Only Elliott and since-graduated reserve Nicco Fertitta didn’t end up switching positions, transferring or both. Fertitta had zero career starts and very few high-leverage snaps during his college career.

Yet in the two seasons Gilman played for the Irish — and Elliott, the corners and a strong pass rush factored in big time, too — Notre Dame finished sixth (2018) and fifth (2019) in pass-efficiency defense, the two highest rankings by the Irish in that category in the roughly three decades it’s been an official NCAA stat.

Gilman will have plenty of familiar faces to help support him ascending and surprising in the NFL, just as he did in college.

In addition to fellow rookies Bilal and Vaughn, the Chargers roster includes veterans and ND alums Jerry Tillery, Isaac Rochell and Drue Tranquill, with Tranquill being the Irish player Gilman said impacted him the most in college.

“He’s been a big mentor for me,” Gilman said Saturday. “Drue and I have similar skill sets. We’re both hard-nosed, grind people who work really hard and believe in ourselves.

“I’m excited to take these next steps forward, and I think Notre Dame has given me the great opportunity to prepare for this next step.”

The Los Angeles Chargers selected Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman in the sixth round of the NFL Draft on Saturday.
The Carolina Panthers selected Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (5) in the fourth round of the NFL Draft.
The Detroit Lions selected Notre Dame defensive end Khalid Kareem (53) in the fifth round of the NFL Draft.