Stay or go? Stephon Tuitt has a big decision to make

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As Notre Dame prepares for the Pinstripe Bowl, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is likely preparing to make his own big decision. The junior defensive end is eligible to enter the NFL Draft, and depending on what you hear from various experts in the media, Tuitt will likely be a first round pick whenever he decides to turn professional.

Of course, we’ve seen just how much influence the media has had in the 32 draft rooms. Guys like Matt Barkley and Manti Te’o have seen their “stock drop,” while guys like Bruce Irvin have come from nowhere to go in the first round. It’s all part of the NFL’s silly season, where analysts spend months debating while NFL teams evaluate college football’s talent pool.

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly talked about the decision Tuitt faces, and where the junior is in that process.

“All we’ve done is put in his paperwork to get an evaluation from the NFL,” Kelly said. “I’ve had some preliminary conversations about his academic work.  He still has some work to do academically.  We haven’t really delved into the depth of that yet.”

That exploration will likely come in the days following the Irish’s bowl game, a match-up that could feature a lot of Tuitt. After a slow start to the season, one Kelly attributed to an offseason hernia surgery that hindered Tuitt during the spring and summer, Tuitt played strong football during the season’s second half and has been the dominant, jumbo-sized, 3-4 defensive end that many expected.

Playing a ton of snaps for a 320-pound defensive lineman, Tuitt put together an impressive regular season stat-line of 45 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 6 sacks. While he didn’t match the explosive behind the line of scrimmage numbers he put up last season, he played well with a spotlight on him that just didn’t exist last season. (Take a look at Jadeveon Clowney’s numbers if you’re looking for a comparison.)

Tuitt won’t be the pass rusher that Clowney will be, an explosive defensive end that still projects to be among the top three picks in the draft. But six-foot-six, 320-pound defensive ends don’t grow on trees, and Tuitt’s size, skill-set and athleticism make him one of the elite defensive talents available to NFL teams, especially with his ability to play in both three and four down sets.

The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen talked with DraftCountdown.com’s Scott Wright, who is already well into his research for a draft that’s still 147 days away. He talked about the somewhat tricky situation Tuitt finds himself in, as teams look at the edge players behind Clowney.

“Tuitt’s in kind of a tricky situation. Clowney is projected to be the first defensive end taken, somewhere in the top three picks overall. Then there’s a gap. Who is the next defensive end who comes off the board?” Wright told Hansen.

“If Tuitt isn’t the favorite, he’s certainly in the conversation. And some of the other contenders for that spot — Stanford’s Trent Murphy and Clemson’s Vic Beasley — may end up playing outside linebacker. Tuitt is a true defensive end who can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. Sure, he could go back for his senior season and be a top 5, 10 guy next year. But he may already be in a position to be in the top 10 this year, just based on need and who’s available.”

While “stay or go” might be the question that’s asked of Tuitt the most these next few weeks, Kelly has been consistent on his message to players who have been in similar situations.

“I personally think you come to Notre Dame, you want to get your degree,” Kelly said Sunday. “That wouldn’t just be for Stephon Tuitt, I think it would be for everybody.”

Kelly is well practiced at this point, guiding Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert through the decision. It hasn’t all been advice that brings the players back to South Bend either, with Rudolph, Eifert and Louis Nix having an unused year of eligibility when they went to the next level.

Still, the remaining constant in all of this was a college degree. That seemed immensely important to the families of Irish players saddled with a wonderful problem to have, and was a priority for Tuitt and his mother, Gwinnett County sheriff’s deputy Tamara Bartlett.

Bartlett’s stance on Tuitt’s professional career has been interesting to track. Early in his sophomore season, she was adamant on her son earning a degree. Late this summer, when preseason hype was at its highest, multiple outlets reported that she was doing her due diligence on agents. After Tuitt told The Observer that he planned on returning to school, his mother did her best to control the chaos, telling the Chicago Tribune, “Stephon has not decided what he is going to do. What he meant to say was that school is the focal point and he will get his degree from ND.”

Expect Brian Kelly and his defensive staff to re-recruit Tuitt all over again. Following a playbook that allowed Michael Floyd to get his degree and still be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, Kelly will lay out for Tuitt what the staff can help him improve, and how that can push the hulking defensive end higher in the draft, while also giving him the certainty that a Notre Dame degree provides. 

If you were to follow the bread crumbs, there is optimism inside the Gug that Tuitt will return for his senior season. He stated as much in mid-October, though tried his best to put the toothpaste back in the tube after the news broke. Irish Illustrated also reported last week that any correspondence with potential agents between Tuitt’s family or intermediaries has gone cold, probably the most telling sign.

There’s nothing wrong with Tuitt saying goodbye to Notre Dame now, moving to the NFL and being able to provide for his family immediately. He can always return to South Bend and pick up his degree later, like Jimmy Clausen did a few years ago.

But with Everett Golson already looking like a five-star recruit, Kelly has the opportunity to welcome back his star defensive end, a six-star prospect if there ever was one.

 

 

 

Recruiting success continues with OL Dirksen, class’s 12th commit

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Even in the doldrums of spring practice, Notre Dame’s recent recruiting success continues. Rivals.com three-star/scout.com four-star offensive lineman John Dirksen offered a verbal commitment to the Irish on Saturday, bringing the 2018 class to 12 commitments.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pounds Dirksen (Marion High School; Maria Stein, Ohio) joins consensus three-star prospect Cole Mabry (Brentwood H.S.; Brentwood, Tenn.) as the offensive linemen thus far among the 12. In three of the last four years, Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand has pulled in four recruits, with 2015’s two (Trevor Ruhland, Tristen Hoge) as the exception. This recruiting cycle could again bring a limited offensive line haul, given the likely limits on the class’s size.

While any and all current class of 2018 team rankings should be taken with many grains of salt—there are 318 days between today and National Signing Day, after all—Dirksen’s commitment solidifies the Irish hold on the No. 3 class, per rivals.com. Other recruiting services place Notre Dame even higher.

Dirksen chose Hiestand and the Irish over offers from Michigan State, Iowa State and Boston College, among others.

 

Holmes out for spring; Jones & Jones shining

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Notre Dame’s spring continued over the weekend, and is all too often the case with football, that led to an injury. Early enrollee running back C.J. Holmes will probably miss the rest of spring practice due to a separated shoulder, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced following Saturday’s practice.

“We’ll get an MRI and know a little bit further on Monday once that calms down a little bit,” Kelly said. “We’ll get a picture of that and see. He had an open repair on that same shoulder his sophomore year in high school.”

Behind three backs, including two with experience, Holmes was unlikely to see playing time in the backfield in 2017.

Of those three backs, sophomore Tony Jones, Jr., is the unknown after preserving a year of eligibility last season. In limited practice viewing, however, Jones has only impressed. He has caught Kelly’s eye, as well.

“He’s 225 pounds, can catch the ball coming out of the backfield, [is] assignment correct, and can run elusively and can get into the second level,” Kelly said. “What does that equal? He’s a pretty good back.

“Obviously he was noticeable today in his play and he got some work with the first group as well. He wasn’t just getting second-team reps.”

Jones may be getting some first-unit exposure, but expect him to remain behind junior Josh Adams in the depth chart. Considering Jones’ style is somewhat comparable to Adams’, whereas junior Dexter Williams presents something of a change of pace, Williams should see more action than the sophomore, as well.

MORE PRAISE FOR ALIZE JONES
Junior tight end Alizé Jones—rather, Alizé Mack, per his Twitter account—has taken the lead in spring’s race of who reaps the most sound bite accolades. In complimenting Jones, who missed last season due to an academic suspension, Kelly also managed to laud new offensive coordinator Chip Long.

“I think Chip is doing a terrific job with [Jones],” Kelly said. “He’s got a good relationship. He knows how to rise him up when he needs to and scold him when he needs to. Alizé needs a little bit of that.

“He’s virtually un-coverable in certain areas of the field. I don’t care at any level. You can’t cover him. He just has that kind of talent. The one that I think stands out to me in the few days is he’s committed himself to being a blocker and playing physical. If he continues to do that, we’re going to find ourselves with a lot of tight ends on the field.”

Presumably, Jones would join graduate student tight end Durham Smythe in two tight end sets. It should be remembered, Long has historically shown a preference for such formations, and with Notre Dame’s plethora of options at the position, Long’s tendencies have no need to change. For that matter, Long had some praise for Jones this weekend, as well.

“Alizé can be as good as he wants to be,” Long said Friday. “…He’s growing up each and every day. Great joy to coach, and that whole group is. He doesn’t want to let that group down. There’s no question he can be as good as he wants to be.”

Friday at 4: 40-yard dashes and absurdity

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Of all the absurd things the football world often obsesses over, the 40-yard dash may be the most useless of them. Yes, it even beats out assigning star rankings to 16- and 17-year-olds, though not by much.

For now, let’s look past the rest of the inane Draft intricacies, such as former Irish defensive lineman Jarron Jones feeling pressured to increase his vertical jump by four inches. (He did, jumping to 24.5 inches in Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday.) This scribe does not have an excess of time to spend discussing Jones’s outlandish wingspan if this piece is to post by its intended, though unnecessary, 4 p.m. ET deadline.

The 40-yard dash … No football play begins from a sprinter’s stance, yet it may be the factor most crucial to a low 40 time. Former Irish quarterback DeShone Kizer posted a time of 4.83 seconds in the NFL Combine earlier this month. For context’s sake, Kizer ran .07 seconds slower than Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger did as a draft prospect in the 2004 combine.

Roethlisberger has had himself an excellent career, and his ability to shrug off 300-pound defensive linemen is a testament to his athleticism. Put Kizer and Roethlisberger in the open field together, though, and Kizer would presumably have outrun Roethlisberger at any point of the two-time Super Bowl champion’s career. In Indianapolis, however, Roethlisberger did a better job of getting his hips through his first couple strides of the heralded 40-yard dash.

Here, watch Kizer train for the 40, the most-hyped measurement of his combine.

“The ultimate goal is to have yourself in the best position to have your body weight back in those legs so you can create enough torque to get out as quickly as possible,” Kizer said. “A guy who is as long as I am, with long limbs that I have, I’ve got to make sure that my weight distribution is in the best position for me to get out and catch up to some of those quicker guys who are a little lower to the ground.”

What part of that sounds applicable to football? The 40 turns Kizer’s size (6-foot-4, 237 pounds) into a negative. He worries about the angle of his knees. After his throwing session at the Thursday Pro Day, Kizer summed up the draft evaluation process even more succinctly.

“This process is very different in the sense that the way you look productive in the combine and in a pro day is very different from what productivity actually looks like out on the field.”

Well put.

More pertinent to the actual game of football, Kizer’s completion percentage in the staged workout could have been higher.

Then again, he was throwing to the likes of former Irish receivers Corey Robinson and Amir Carlisle and former running back Jonas Gray. Reportedly, the only contact Gray and Kizer had before the session was Kizer emailing the former New England Patriot the planned series of routes.

The NFL Draft, where Gmail becomes a necessity.

Let’s do away with the 40. If we insist on keeping it, let’s do it twice, once from a standing start and once from a running start. Those would simulate actual football movements: A receiver getting off the line, and a ballcarrier breaking away and trying to outrun the defense.

Asking DeShone Kizer to mimic Usain Bolt is an exercise in futility, idiocy, absurdity.

Cue end of rant.

Why cite the Roethlisberger time? Many, including Sports Illustrated’s Chris Burke, have readily compared Kizer to Roethlisberger this spring.

The most notable line of that scouting report (scroll down to No. 32) may be its final one, echoing Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly’s sentiments from earlier this week.

“The mystery is whether he can regain his assertiveness,” Burke writes. “If so, he could turn out to be the 2017 class’s best QB. The team that drafts him will be taking a leap of faith.”

A leap. Not a dash.

For more Notre Dame Pro Day results, click here.

And with that, this just may make the 4 p.m. posting. You know what to do.

 

Tranquill continues work with safeties … for now

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Drue Tranquill will see time at the oft-spoken of rover position, just not yet. For now, Notre Dame needs the senior at safety to provide leadership and communication while the rest of his position group gets up to speed.

“We really have to figure out what the coordination is going to be at the safety position,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said following Wednesday’s practice. “How much does Drue play down at rover? How much does he play back [at safety]?”

Only sophomore Devin Studstill returns any starts to the safety position aside from Tranquill’s career total of 18. Studstill started nine games last season.

That void has kept Tranquill working mostly with the defensive backs in the spring’s first few practices, rather than joining the likes of junior Asmar Bilal in the rover grouping.

“We didn’t want to pull our most veteran player out of the back end of our defense with Drue,” Kelly said. “I think it was more about the hesitancy of losing a great communicator in the back end than about the teaching.”

The time will come, however, for Tranquill to move up. Juniors Nick Coleman and Ashton White have moved to safety from the corner position. With more reps, they will not need to rely on Tranquill’s guidance as much. The same goes for, at least in theory, sophomore Jalen Elliott.

“It’s not really a heavy load of teaching for those guys,” Kelly said. “They’re picking it up quite well. We really want to get a chance to see a lot of guys back there.”

Kelly seemed particularly bullish on Coleman’s prospects at the position, provided he embrace the needed physicality. At 6-foot, 187 pounds, Coleman’s build may have been more suited on the outside, but Notre Dame’s plethora of promising cornerbacks provided an impetus to test Coleman at safety.

“The big thing will be Nick’s continuous development in tackling,” Kelly said. “You have to tackle back there. His ball skills are really good. We’ve seen that he’s able to play the ball. He has athleticism.

“We just want to continue to build on his tackling skills. If we go through the spring and say, ‘Well, he’s tackling really well,’ we’ll feel pretty good about the move.”

At that point, Tranquill will likely join Bilal at the hybrid position, which is something of a trademark to new defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s scheme. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound Tranquill will be able to do what he does best: Pursue the ball.

“We all know what his strengths are,” Kelly said. “He’s a solid tackler. I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up one-on-one with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you play him close to the ball as a rover.

“And I think he’s pretty quick off the edge. I think we put him in a really good position in maximizing his skill set.”

Until then, Bilal will continue to be the frontrunner at rover, especially with the first four Irish opponents of 2017 presenting run-heavy offenses.

KELLY ON NICK WATKINS
Kelly was also asked about senior cornerback Nick Watkins, his fit into Elko’s defense and his return from injury.

“He’s very coachable, wants to learn, he’s pretty long,” Kelly said. “What I think Mike [Elko] does really well—and this is what I liked about my interactions with him—is, we all have strengths and weaknesses. He has a great eye of saying let’s take Nick’s strengths and let’s put him in a position where we can really utilize his strengths and put him in a position where maybe we’re not a right and left corner team, maybe we’re a short field/wide field team. Let’s apply him in that fashion.

“Nick’s long. He’s a little bit of a physical player. Let’s go to those strengths. He’s shown some of those attributes early on.”

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Bilal the first in at ‘versatile’ rover position, others likely to follow
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