Why you should care
When it comes to sending players to the NFL, the Crimson’s tide is rising.
During a Week 3 NFL game in sunny Tampa Bay this season, Buccaneers quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick connected with tight end Cameron Brate for a four-yard touchdown. That same week, in Kansas City, San Francisco 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk took a pass 35 yards for a touchdown.
Back in Boston, these plays no doubt made Tim Murphy smile. After all, the Harvard University head football coach had groomed all three players to succeed at the NFL level, and they aren’t letting him down.
Harvard has long enjoyed a global reputation as the apex of academic excellence, as an institution students dream of attending, from India and Indonesia, Paraguay and Pakistan alike. Now, the school is showing another side of its success story. Harvard is enjoying an unprecedented level of NFL success. In 2014, there were three Harvard players on the NFL’s opening day rosters. To open this season, that number has ballooned to eight, with a ninth player signed to a team’s practice squad.
No matter what the FCS school, NFL teams always want to find the best players, wherever they are.
Matt Mano, former NFL scout
These eight Harvard players in the NFL comprise more than half of the Ivy League’s total representation of 15 players, with the University of Pennsylvania claiming three and Columbia, Cornell, Princeton and Yale with one apiece. In fact, Harvard sends the most players to the NFL of any Division I FCS program, which includes the Ivy League conference as well as 13 others and is less competitive than Division I FBS. That’s significant when you consider the talent other top FCS programs like North Dakota State have produced recently, such as Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz and Indianapolis Colts right tackle Joe Haeg.
“No matter what the FCS school, NFL teams always want to find the best players, wherever they are,” says Matt Mano, former NFL scout with the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns. “Harvard has gotten some great scholar-athletes recently who have made their mark, and they are as well-positioned as any FCS school to attract NFL talent.”
Once upon a time, if Harvard was producing NFL players, they were likely to be offensive linemen or quarterbacks — you know, the “brainy” positions. But recent Harvard products who have made their way to the NFL are demonstrating they got more than a good education at their alma mater. Harvard has landed a collection of talented H-backs (fullback/tight end hybrids) in the pros in Kyle Juszczyk, Cameron Brate, Ben Braunecker and Anthony Firkser. The 49ers made Juszczyk the highest-paid fullback in NFL history in 2017 with a four-year, $21-million deal. And don’t forget Tyler Ott, currently signed to the Seattle Seahawks, who boasts skills at both tight end and … long snapper.
Firkser, now with the Titans, credits Murphy’s unique offense as the reason he chose to commit to Harvard. “During recruiting, [Murphy] showed me a lot of film on the H-back position I didn’t really know existed,” Firkser says. “As a bigger receiver, Harvard best suited my play style.”
Coach Murphy’s special breed of pass-catcher has caught the eye of NFL teams looking to get tight ends and fullbacks involved in new ways as passing continues to dominate the professional game. “The NFL has trended more toward what’s going on in college football, and that’s why you have more athletic quarterbacks, more spread sets,” says Murphy. “It’s become a much more dynamic game.”
NFL teams have found myriad uses for these Harvard pass-catchers — whom Murphy, also Harvard’s tight ends coach, describes as the “SEALs” of his system because they must be able to line up anywhere on the field.
Before Murphy took over at the helm of this program 25 years ago, NFL scouts weren’t lining up to watch its players, save for an offensive lineman here or there — guard/center Joe Pellegrini in 1982 or tackle Roger Caron in 1985. But the type of athletes Murphy and his staff have focused on recruiting has put the program on the map, opening up a well that scouts find themselves returning to year after year. In total, since the league was founded in 1920, Harvard has sent 36 players to the NFL — 13 since Murphy took his current post in 1994. It’s no coincidence that Harvard has the fifth-highest winning percentage in all of Division I this century, sitting just behind FBS heavyweight Oklahoma.
“We’ve definitely developed some credibility in that when we recommend a kid, it’s certainly worth a look,” says Murphy. “All those tight ends were not heavily recruited kids out of high school,” he adds. But they thrive in the Crimson system “because they have to adapt.” That’s an ability more NFL teams are looking for as offensive playbooks get more complicated.
However, while we can quantitatively point to a growing number of Harvard athletes on NFL rosters, Mano can’t say for sure the trend will continue to rise. “All of this has probably led to a bit of a trend, but at the same time the sample size is small,” he points out.
If Harvard is going to not only dominate the FCS in getting players on NFL rosters but actually start competing with FBS programs — where Alabama leads the pack with 43 players on NFL rosters — it starts and ends with recruiting. “We are the ultimate human resources industry,” says Murphy. “The better kids and better athletes we recruit, the more successful our program has been. We certainly believe we will have more of these kinds of athletes in the future.”
NFL scouts certainly seem to hope so.