Notre Dame & The Early NFL Draft
On Feb. 17, 1990, the NFL declared it would allow college football players who had completed their junior years to be eligible for the spring draft. It was the last major professional sports organization to allow this practice.
A year later, Notre Dame wide receiver/running back/return man Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, the 1990 Walter Camp Award winner and Heisman Trophy runner-up as a junior, was the first to exercise that option, although his career would begin in the Canadian Football League.
Since then, 15 other Notre Dame players joined him, an current consensus All-American cornerback Julian Love likewise is mulling that option. Defensive end Khalid Kareem has declared he would return for his senior year in 2019, and classmate/end Julian Okwara was projected to announce his decision as well prior to the Jan. 14 deadline.
Our definition of turning pro “early” is the junior year. It doesn’t apply to returning for a fifth season of eligibility.
Former Irish standouts such as nose guard Chris Zorich (1987-90), center Jeff Faine (1999-2002), defensive end Justin Tuck (2001-04), tight ends Anthony Fasano (2002-05) and Tyler Eifert (2009-12), nose guard Louis Nix (2010-13) and most recently Quenton Nelson (2014-17) all had a fifth season of eligibility, but because they were on pace to graduate (or already had graduated) as seniors, we do not consider them “early entries” after their senior years. The same could hold true for wide receiver Miles Boykin this year.
Here are the 16 Notre Dame players who did turn pro after their junior season — with 11 of them occurring since 2010, or shortly after Brian Kelly was hired as head coach in December 2009.
Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1991)
Projected as the No. 1 overall NFL pick in 1991, he instead signed a then unheard of $18.2 million deal over four years with the CFL’s Toronto Argonauts.
As a rookie he was the Grey Cup MVP while leading Toronto to the title, but he opted to join the NFL’s Oakland Raiders by 1993. During his nine-year NFL career with Oakland/Los Angeles, Carolina and Dallas, Ismail caught 313 passes for 5,295 yards (16.9 yards per catch) and 30 touchdowns before retiring at the end of the 2001 season.
Jerome Bettis & Tom Carter (1993)
“The Bus” was the No. 10 overall pick of the then Los Angeles Rams, while cornerback Carter was selected by Washington with the No. 17 pick.
Bettis was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015 after a magnificent 14-year NFL career that was capped with a Super Bowl title with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Carter totaled nine years with three different franchises, recording 98 starts and 27 interceptions (six as a rookie).
Bobby Taylor (1995)
Even though he played half of 1994 with a broken hand, Taylor was projected a first-round pick at corner. He was stunned when six other cornerbacks were taken ahead of him and he dropped to the 50th overall pick in the second round, by the Philadelphia Eagles.
He ended up with a 10-year NFL career (the first nine at Philadelphia), highlighted by earning All-Pro honors in 2002.
Darius Walker (2007)
Far and away the most surprising decision, incensing head coach Charlie Weis in the process. Walker had an ultra-productive college career, finishing as Notre Dame’s fourth all-time leading rusher (3,249 yards) and first in passes caught by a running back (109). However, because he possessed neither superb size nor game-breaking speed, he was bypassed in the draft.
Walker latched on temporarily with Houston, St. Louis, Dallas and Denver from 2007-09, producing 264 rushing yards and a touchdown during that time. He returned to Notre Dame in 2009 to earn his degree.
Jimmy Clausen & Golden Tate (2010)
Projected in some circles as a top-10 NFL pick, Clausen plummeted to No. 48 (second round). Clausen played in 13 games as a 2010 rookie, starting 10, but had an extremely low rating. Rookie Cam Newton than took over in 2011. Clausen has not played since 2015 as a reserve, and finished 1-13 as a starter.
The 2009 Biletnikoff Award winner, Tate was also taken in the second round (60th overall pick), signing a four-year deal with the Seattle Seahawks for $3.261 million. A Super Bowl champion with the Seahawks, he caught a minimum of 91 passes four straight seasons at Detroit from 2014-17 before getting "limited" to 74 for 795 yards and four touchdowns this year.
Kyle Rudolph (2011)
Also a second-round pick (43rd overall), but the first tight end. He signed a four-year deal worth $3,907,164. After a good rookie year with 28 catches (three touchdowns), he became a replacement in the 2013 Pro Bowl for Tony Gonzalez — and was named the game’s MVP.
Rudolph has nabbed 386 career passes and 41 touchdowns with the Minnesota Vikings, with 64 catches and four scores this year. He made the Pro Bowl last season and has been nominated for the Walter Payton NFL Man of The Year Award for his work in the community.
Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas & George Atkinson III (2014)
Defensive lineman Tuitt was the No. 46 pick (second round) and has been a mainstay for the Pittsburgh Steelers, signing a six-year, $61.05 million deal in September 2017. This year in 14 starts he had 45 tackles, seven for loss with 5.5 sacks. He also had 20 QB hits.
Also a second-round pick (No. 52 overall), tight end Niklas is currently an unsigned free agent after completing an injury ravaged four-year career at Arizona, where he caught 19 passes for 203 yards and three scores in his time there.
Atkinson latched on as a free agent at Oakland and last played for Cleveland in 2016.
Jaylon Smith & Will Fuller (2016)
A projected top-10 pick prior to a devastating knee injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl, Smith dropped to the second round (No. 34 overall), sat out his rookie season and then finished with 81 tackles (50 solo), one sack and two forced fumbles at linebacker for Dallas in 2017 while starting six games.
This year he started all 16 games for the Cowboys and recorded 122 tackles (83 solo), six for loss with four sacks, and returned a fumble for a touchdown
First-round wideout Fuller (No. 21 overall) snared 47 passes as a rookie, two for scores, and in 2017 seven of his 28 catches resulted in touchdowns, but he missed six games with an injury.
This year he was on pace for a huge season when he snared 32 passes for 503 yards (15.7 yards per catch) while starting all seven games before tearing his ACL that sidelined him for the balance of the campaign.
DeShone Kizer (2017)
The second-round pick (No. 52 overall) landed with his home state Cleveland Browns and went through the throes (not just throws) of a 0-16 campaign as a rookie. He started 15 games, passed for 2,894 yards with 11 touchdowns and 22 interceptions, and rushed for 419 yards and five scores.
This year he was traded to Green Bay and was a backup for Aaron Rodgers. Kizer completed 20 of 42 passes for 187 yards, no scores and two interceptions in 2018.
Josh Adams (2018) & Equanimeous St. Brown
Although neither ranked high on the draft boards, both latched on as rookies, Adams as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles, near his home, and St. Brown as a sixth-round selection of the Green Bay Packers.
Injury situations helped open the door for Adams, who finished the regular season with 120 carries for 511 yards (4.3 yards per rush) and three touchdowns in the 14 games he played. The Eagles take on the Chicago Bears this week in playoff action while attempting to defend their Super Bowl title.
St. Brown appeared in 12 games, grabbing 21 passes for 328 yards (15.6 yards per catch) and no touchdowns.