Hansen: Kelly's post-NFL Draft victory lap includes wins in the Notre Dame classroom

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — As Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was taking a victory lap of sorts Monday morning for a near-record NFL Draft class, the first stabs at mock drafts for 2022 were already populating Twitter timelines in cicada-like fashion.

The same player development model that catalyzed the Irish to send nine players to the league via the draft and five others through rookie free agency this past weekend will be put to the test next season on Saturdays, particularly on defense.

That is, if the mocks don’t turn out to be actual mockery of what will transpire next April 28-30 in Las Vegas for the 2022 three-day, seven-round football fest.

One predominant common thread in those self-proclaimed “way-too-early” projections is that new Notre Dame defensive coordinator Marcus Freeman and the Irish will face three future first-round draft picks at QB this fall.

And all three in a four-game span in October.

That’s Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, USC’s Kedon Slovis and North Carolina’s Sam Howell.

Fortunately for Kelly and Freeman, they have a safety in junior-to-be Kyle Hamilton who’s on a trajectory to be a top 10 pick next April, per the mocks, with most appraising him as top-5 worthy.

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If that holds up, that’s more draft history on his watch that Kelly can stuff into the recruiting brochures and social media graphics.

Hamilton would become the fourth Irish safety in the past five decades to be taken in the first round — following Harrison Smith (2012), Jeff Burris (1994) and Clarence Ellis (1972) — and first ever to go as high as No. 10.

Notre Dame’s 2021 draft contingent of nine players was the largest from ND in the seven-round format since 1994, the first year of seven rounds and a draft that produced 10 selections from Notre Dame.

Nine draftees were also one shy of the most players taken from a school in the 2021 draft, behind only Alabama and Ohio State.

Kelly’s post-draft Zoom Monday morning with the media saw plenty of questions thrown his way, asking him to correlate director of football performance Matt Balis’ presence on the staff since 2017 to those kind of numbers, including the most draftees from Notre Dame now in a four-year span (25) since late in the Lou Holtz Era (1992-95).

That curiosity was exceeded only by Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah queries — amplified by the presence of Browns media, eager to understand what Cleveland was getting in the Irish linebacker and second-round selection.

Kelly’s biggest victory related to the draft on a personal level, though, continues to be marrying the concept of the NFL dream with Notre Dame’s academic mission.

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Particularly as it pertains to players leaving before they had attained their degrees.

Tight end Tommy Tremble, who became a third-round draft choice of the Carolina Panthers on Friday night, is the 19th true junior to become an early entry in the NFL Draft, since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989.

In the first 32 draft cycles since that shift, only seven Irish players took advantage of the rule. In the 11 cycles under Kelly’s watch, there have been 12 three-and-outs.

Through 2018, only four had come back to get their degrees — Rocket Ismail (1994), Tom Carter (1995), Darius Walker (2009) and Jimmy Clausen (2013).

But in 2019 and 2020, that number doubled — with Jaylon Smith, Troy Niklas, Josh Adams and Julian Love all coming back to finish.

“I just couldn’t wrap my head around guys leaving early without their degrees, and the number of them who were doing it, beginning with Troy and that (2014 draft) class,” Kelly said. “So we went and did something about it.”

He credits Beth Rex, Notre Dame’s director of football administration, with being the impetus behind putting a program in place that actively recruits those who haven’t finished and simplifies the logistics for them.

That includes working with the NFL Players Association, so that there’s no cost to the players.

Three more former three-and-out Irish players are accruing credits this semester toward their degree — Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end Stephon Tuitt and 49-year-old Pro Football Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis.

“In Jerome’s situation, he was past the deadline, and we were still able to do things in terms of getting his classes taken care of (financially),” Kelly said Monday. “A lot of that is Beth Rex, and she’s done an incredible job with it.

“She was the one that really got Jerome back here. But it’s been Jerome. It’s been Stephon Tuitt. It’s been all of the players that we felt like it was our responsibility to bridge that gap and make sure that we could provide them with the resources necessary.”

The desire for most of them was already there. Life just got in the way.

“I definitely want to finish,” Bettis told the Tribune in 2014. “I’ve got children now … and I want to be the example to them.

“So how can Dad tell them, ‘Hey, school’s important. School’s important.’ And you didn’t finish? It is important to me.”

NFL Hall of Famer Jerome Bettis wears a Notre Dame hat on the sidelines before the 2018 College Football Playoff matchup between the Irish and Clemson in Arlington, Texas.