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Kiper: Irish begin Willingham era

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Mel Kiper Archive

Tuesday, March 8

Recruiting, draft key to Irish fortunes

The Tyrone Willingham era begins in South Bend this season, with Notre Dame aiming to re-establish itself as a major force on the college football landscape. But it will take time for Willingham to approach the success of the Lou Holtz era, during which the Fighting Irish captured the 1988 national championship.

Number of first- and second-round draft picks produced in past five years
School # of Picks
Notre Dame 2
Florida State 13
Florida 14
Miami 14
Tennessee 16

The reason is simple: a lack of top-flight personnel and difference-makers at key positions. While the Irish have developed some solid college performers, they have lacked in recent years super blue-chippers with the potential to become first- or second-round draft choices. The proof is in the NFL draft.

Since Lou Holtz moved on and Bob Davie took over, the Irish have produced just one first-rounder and one second-rounder in the past five years -- OT Luke Petitgout (first round in 1999, New York Giants) and DL Anthony Weaver (second round in 2002, Baltimore Ravens).

In the five years before Holtz's arrival in South Bend, the Irish produced four first-rounders and one second-rounder.

Contrast that with Holtz's 11-year tenure at Notre Dame, when the Irish produced 12 first-rounders and 16 second-rounders. To refresh your memory, that group included players such as Tim Grunhard, Todd Lyght, Derek Brown, Ricky Watters, Chris Zorich, Rick Mirer, Jerome Bettis, Tom Carter, Irv Smith, Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, Jeff Burris and Bobby Taylor.

Of the 22 starters on Notre Dame's 1988 national title team, all were drafted by the NFL -- except, ironically, QB Tony Rice. One of that team's MVPs, Rice finished fourth in the '88 Heisman balloting and was a key reason the Irish won the national title.

So 28 players over an 11-year period under Holtz were drafted in the first or second round. Meanwhile, in the 10 years that bookend Holtz's tenure, the Irish produced just seven such players. By the way, the number of first-rounders under Holtz doesn't include Raghib "Rocket" Ismail. He signed originally with the CFL after he was expected to be the No. 1 overall pick (of the Dallas Cowboys) in 1991.

These numbers provide indisputable evidence that explains why the Irish were in the national championship hunt for most of the Holtz era -- and why in the 10 years surrounding Holtz the Irish won seven or fewer games eight times, with an overall record during that period of 65-51-1.

The success of top-level programs such as Miami (Fla.), Florida, Florida State and Tennessee can be traced to what transpires in the NFL draft. Over the past five years, Tennessee has produced the most first- and second-rounders (16), followed by Miami (14), Florida (14) and Florida State (13). Of this group, Miami has produced the most first-round picks (12).

Tyrone Willingham
New Notre Dame coach Tyrone Willingham faces the challenge of attracting top-notch talent to South Bend.
While Miami, Florida, Florida State and Tennessee have enjoyed success at producing top draft choices, let's not forget that the Irish took a back seat to no one during just a two-year period in 1993 and '94, when they supplied the NFL with 10 first- or second-round picks. In fact, when Washington Redskins player personnel director Vinny Cerrato was the recruiting coordinator for Holtz, Notre Dame's recruiting classes were unanimously ranked No. 1 in the country for four straight years (1987-90).

Only time will tell whether Willingham can land the top-level, super blue-chip talent necessary for Notre Dame to return to the glory years, when the Irish could compete for the national championship on an annual basis.

In his first season, though, even a Hall of Fame coach like Holtz needed time to turn things around. The Irish were 5-6 in 1986, Holtz's first year in South Bend, before improving to 8-4 in '87. In 1988, Notre Dame was a perfect 12-0 in its most recent national championship season.

Rest assured that a similar scenario in the first three years of the Willingham era would sit quite well with Irish fans across the country.

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