Brian Kelly guaranteed his player development when he arrived in South Bend.
He could have gone a step further.
Kelly didn’t promise to produce first-round picks in that introductory press conference six years ago. He sold himself short. Because when the NFL Draft gets mercifully started on Thursday night, the Irish program will again stake its claim as one of college football’s best in churning out Day One talent.
Assuming Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller go in the first round as expected, Notre Dame will have turned out six first-round picks in six years under Kelly. Without his gruesome injury in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, Jaylon Smith would have been No. 7.
How does that stack up nationally since Kelly started his Notre Dame rebuild? When adding the Mock Draft of Sports Illustrated’s Peter King into the first-round picks of the previous five years, Alabama crushes the field with 14 selections. But Notre Dame fits into the second tier with Florida State (7), Ohio State (7), Florida (6) and Clemson (6).
That means if Jaylon Smith’s knee doesn’t buckle on Jan. 1, Notre Dame would likely trail only Alabama in first-round picks produced since Kelly took over in South Bend.
On top of that, three of the first-round picks produced by Kelly have already made the Pro Bowl in Harrison Smith, Zack Martin and Tyler Eifert. Martin has made it in back-to-back years.
Still, there’s new ground for this draft class to cover if Stanley goes in the Top 10. He’d be the first Notre Dame player to go that high since Bryant Young went seventh overall to San Francisco in 1994. The last Top 5 pick was Rick Mirer to Seattle a year earlier at No. 2. Defensive backs coach Todd Lyght went No. 5 to the Los Angeles Rams in 1991.
Kelly’s production of first-round picks compares favorably to the days of Lou Holtz, who turned out a dozen in his 11 seasons in South Bend. Four of those players went in the Top 10: Young, Mirer, Lyght and Tim Brown.
Bob Davie can take credit for two in tackle Luke Petitgout and center Jeff Faine, although Faine played his final year under Tyrone Willingham.
Charlie Weis can take credit for Brady Quinn’s development into a first-round pick, coaching his final two seasons as the Irish made back-to-back BCS bowls. He recruited Michael Floyd, Smith, Martin and Eifert, but the heavy lifting of their development was left to Kelly’s staff.
In other words, by Friday morning Kelly will likely have produced double the first-round picks that Davie, Willingham and Weis did in their 13 seasons.
When it comes to the player development game, Notre Dame is winning. Not only can Kelly’s run be compared to the work of Holtz, it can be mentioned near the top of college football today too.