NFL Draft shows improvements in Notre Dame's player development

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NFL Draft shows improvements in Notre Dame's player development

You can bet Brian Kelly is going to hammer home the number 51,251,888 in the coming weeks and months. 

That’s the estimated total contract dollar value Notre Dame’s seven draftees will earn, second among college football programs only to Ohio State (which, according to Spotrac.com, is a gargantuan $117,499,008). It’s a sexy number that’ll be used to entice recruits across the nation, as well as players within the program who face the decision to stay at Notre Dame or turn pro after a junior season. 

Notre Dame’s draft-week success is a strong indicator that the program’s player development — especially on the offensive side of the ball — is in a good place. 

Ronnie Stanley was Notre Dame’s first top-10 pick in 22 years, and Will Fuller’s decision to leave South Bend after three seasons paid off when the Houston Texans selected him 21st overall. Nick Martin was a second-round pick, while C.J. Prosise went in the third round. While it was a minor surprise to see Chris Brown go undrafted, those four players represent major player development successes. 

Kelly and a cavalcade of Irish personnel successfully pitched Stanley on returning to Notre Dame for his senior season, and he improved his stock from mid-first-round status to being the first offensive lineman taken off the board (Laremy Tunsil’s bizarre Thursday certainly helped push Stanley up, too). Like Stanley, Martin was a Harry Hiestand success story, having steadily developed his game to the point where the Texans traded up two picks to nab him with the 50th selection. 

Hiestand is one of Notre Dame’s more respected position coaches in recent memory. It’s not just from within the program, too — Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh gave a shout-out to Hiestand, who coached the Chicago Bears offensive line from 2005-2009, in introducing Stanley last week. Having an NFL coach praise a college position coach is an awfully strong endorsement to pitch to recruits. 

But the emergences of Fuller and Prosise as Day 1 and Day 2 picks were almost more impressive. 

Fuller was overlooked coming out of high school in Philadelphia, and even after a breakout 2014 season, one early NFL mock draft had Corey Robinson, not Fuller, projected as a first-round pick. But under Mike Denbrock’s watch, Fuller developed from a raw speed burner into a refined, NFL-ready receiver. 

A year ago, it would’ve been difficult to see Prosise as a third-round pick only a few months into his move to running back. Prosise himself admitted it in December that the idea of passing on a fifth year to enter the draft hadn’t really entered his mind until after last season — he figured he’d play a graduate year at Notre Dame and then see where his career would take him.

Instead, Prosise was an immediate success from Autry Denson’s position group, becoming Notre Dame’s first 1,000-yard rusher since 2011. His explosive playmaking ability and versatility from the two years he spent at wide receiver made him an intriguing pick for the Seattle Seahawks. 

Notre Dame also had three defensive players drafted, one from each unit. Jaylon Smith would’ve joined Stanley and Fuller as first-round picks had it not been for the concerns over nerve damage in his surgically-repaired knee; even despite those, though, the Dallas Cowboys used an early second-round pick on him. 

Sheldon Day (Jacksonville Jaguars) and KeiVarae Russell (Kansas City Chiefs) were fourth-round picks, both landing in spots where they’ll have good opportunities to succeed right away. 

It’s true that Notre Dame only had one player drafted in 2015 (tight end Ben Koyack, who went in the seventh round to Jacksonville). But had Stanley and Day declared, it would’ve been more, and both those guys are success stories in the sense of getting a degree from the prestigious Mendoza College of Business (and, in Stanley’s case, improving his draft stock). 

Plenty of college football’s elite programs can trot out gaudy signing bonus numbers and Pro Bowl appearances for former players, though. Those are a good hook for plenty of blue-chip recruits. 

But for some recruits — and plenty of parents — Notre Dame has another pitch to offer. Robinson and Steve Elmer are excellent examples of what can be done outside of football at Notre Dame, be it being elected student body president and starting a charity or leaving football to take a job in Washington D.C. after graduating in three and a half years. 

And whatever the message may be, it’s working. Notre Dame ranks fourth in Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings for the class of 2017. 

Jaylon Smith’s ex-Notre Dame teammates, coaches confident he’ll succeed in NFL

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Jaylon Smith’s ex-Notre Dame teammates, coaches confident he’ll succeed in NFL

The speculation about Jaylon Smith won’t end until he finally sets foot on an NFL field and proves that his knee has fully healed. The Dallas Cowboys drafted Smith with the 34th pick in the 2016 NFL Draft on Friday with the expectation he’ll have a lengthy, successful career in the NFL (

). 

Smith is in relatively uncharted territory when it comes to the damage to the stretched peroneal nerve in his left knee. But universally, Smith’s coaches and former teammates expressed optimism about his recovery and gushed about the elite abilities possessed by the 2015 Butkus Award winner. 

“His traits of explosion and speed and all the physical traits we talk about, they’re top-line,” Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “But the big thing with him is he’s a pro. He can walk in any pro locker room, any pro meeting room — he’s incredible in the meeting room — and he’ll talk better football than a lot of those guys that are already there. He’s very knowledgeable. Worked at it hard. Wanted to see the big picture of football. 

“So he’s NFL ready the minute he walks into a meeting room. Incredible note-taker. He’s just — if I were still in the pros and I drafted him, I can’t imagine that I’ve ever had any rookie come in that would be where he is. He’s just so far ahead. So far ahead.”

VanGorder has a keen knowledge of what it takes to succeed as a linebacker in the NFL, too, having spent four years as the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive coordinator and single seasons as the linebackers’ coach for the Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets. 

“He’s gonna have a hell of a career, he is one heck of a football player and it’s very, very important to him,” VanGorder said. “He’s a champion. He has a champion attitude. He’ll be good.”

While Smith’s trophy-winning junior season certainly was extraordinary, that he still totaled 114 tackles in 2014 was impressive in a different way. That year, Smith was learning a new position — Will inside linebacker in VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme — and was frequently caught out of position, especially after talismanic middle linebacker Joe Schmidt suffered a season-ending injury against Navy. 

But even though Smith struggled with the move inside, his athleticism took over to generate that triple-digit tackle total. Seeing Smith glide from the field to the boundary to make a tackle on an opposing running back was a somewhat common occurrence. 

“Jaylon was a production man,” Notre Dame linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “He made everybody else around him better because he was gonna make up for you. You got reached as a defensive tackle? He was gonna get to the ball and make the tackle. It didn’t matter. Doesn’t matter what happens in front of him. Jaylon made up for a lot of things. He was productive.”

Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace offered a different perspective on what made Smith such a good player. 

“If he wasn’t in class, I don’t know if he’d instantly transport and just be right here in the (Guglielmino Athletics Complex), in the film room, just wanting more and more and more,” Grace said. “Because he didn’t necessarily want to rely on his physical ability. That’s a tremendous trait, God-given and something he’s worked toward as well. 

“But what makes these guys great players is their instincts on the field and they’re able to direct that to the ball, to the play, understanding the game as well. That’s just taking it to the next level. There’s plenty of tremendous athletes out there, you’ll see guys pop up all the time with these crazy numbers, jumping like this. But Jaylon has that and the other side.”

Coach Brian Kelly found himself publicly politicking for Smith over the past few weeks, trying to convey what impressed him so much about his former linebacker to an NFL audience. All Smith needed was a chance, according to Kelly, and he’d prove to be the kind of linebacker he was at Notre Dame — and maybe a better one, too. 

The Dallas Cowboys, on Friday, gave Smith that chance. 

“He’s going to come back from this injury, and when he does, he’s going to be one of the best linebackers in the NFL,” Kelly said. “He has that kind of ability. … Jaylon is somebody that has an incredible, positive attitude. 

“Look, he’s not a gamble. He’s a smart business decision.”

Jaylon Smith taken No. 34 in NFL Draft by Dallas Cowboys

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Jaylon Smith taken No. 34 in NFL Draft by Dallas Cowboys

Where Jaylon Smith would land was one of the biggest questions heading into the second round of the 2016 NFL Draft, which began Friday night in Chicago. 

We didn't have to wait long for an answer.

The Dallas Cowboys took Smith with the 34th overall pick, just three selections into the second round. Smith, who won the Butkus Award in 2015, isn't likely to play in 2016 after suffering a torn ACL and LCL in the Fiesta Bowl that also contained damage to the nerve in his knee. 

Prior to his injury, and the revelations of nerve damage, Smith was widely projected to be a top-10 pick. A former five-star recruit (and winner of the high school Butkus Award, too), Smith asserted himself as one of the most talented players to ever come through Notre Dame during his three seasons in South Bend. The Fort Wayne, Ind. native totaled 292 tackles and 19 tackles for a loss in his college career, in which he was moved from outside linebacker in Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme to "Will" inside linebacker in Brian VanGorder's 4-3 defense. 

Smith took out an insurance policy last year, which reportedly paid him $700,000 for not being a first-round pick $100,000 for each pick after the end of the first round he wasn't selected, so he'll received $900,000 from it. 

With Dallas, Smith will be re-united with his brother, Rod, who's a running back for the Cowboys. 

Smith's former teammates and coaches rushed to Twitter to celebrate. There wasn't a consensus on when Smith would be drafted, with projections ranging between the second and fourth founds.