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.