Irish show well at the NFL Scouting Combine

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Notre Dame had nine players at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. To a man, they all left town improving their proverbial draft stock. We’ve already touched on what the nine-man Irish contingency meant to the football program.

Speed, strength and athleticism were on display by Irish prospects, with statistical gains under Paul Longo’s direction quite obvious. As message-board sage FunkDoctorSpock points out, since 2008 only three Notre Dame prospects clocked a sub 4.51 40-yard dash: David Bruton, Golden Tate and Michael Floyd.

This year, three (George Atkinson, Bennett Jackson and TJ Jones) did it alone.

Let’s talk a look at the results for each player and walk through where they sit with individual workouts and a few more twists and turns until May.

George Atkinson
6’1″, 218 pounds

40-yard Dash: 4.48 seconds
Bench Press: 19 reps
Vertical Jump: 38.0″
Broad Jump: 121.0″
3-Cone Drill: 7.07 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.46 seconds
60-yard Shuttle: 11.50 seconds

Analysis: Irish fans probably expected Atkinson’s elite track speed to produce an every better number than 4.48, but Atkinson did a very nice job in Indianapolis. He also talked candidly about the late-season suspension that ended his career watching his teammates play Rutgers.

Andrew Owens of BlueandGold.com caught this telling quote from Atkinson:

“It was during team meal and I was on the phone and Coach [Brian] Kelly walked up to me and told me to get off the phone,” Atkinson said. “For some stupid reason I decided not to get off right away, and it led to the suspension.

“I would’ve liked to have approached the situation towards the end of my career there, especially my junior year, with both carries and the coaching staff [with a] more mature mindset.”

Atkinson also talked about the health of his mother playing a factor in jumping to the NFL now. He’s the type of elite athlete that one team will look at as a special teams factor, and this performance might help his status as a late-round pick.

Bennett Jackson
6’0″ 187 pounds

40-yard Dash: 4.51 seconds
Bench Press: 13 reps
Vertical Jump: 38.0″
Broad Jump: 128.0″
3-Cone Drill: 6.75 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.00 seconds

Analysis: Jackson ran a 4.51 forty, a really impressive number, even though we all knew he ran track at Notre Dame. His 38-inch vertical leap and 128-inch broad jump were also explosive as well, along with his 20-yard shuttle time.

The tape wasn’t always kind to Jackson and his decreased physicality this season had many thinking he was still playing with a bum shoulder. But Jackson did enough to put himself in that mid-to-late round discussion among cornerbacks.

TJ Jones
6’0″, 188 pounds

40-yard Dash: 4.48 seconds
Vertical Jump: 33.0″
Broad Jump: 119.0″
3-Cone Drill: 6.82 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.27 seconds
60-yard Shuttle: 11.45 seconds

Analysis: When Jones ran an unofficial 4.40 in his first attempt of the forty, even NFL Network’s Mike Mayock was shocked. While the number rounded up a bit officially, that’s the type of speed Jones needed to display to scouts, who likely were questioning his ability to get behind a defense.

Jones didn’t show elite explosiveness, but running sub-4.5 was a big step towards moving Jones up draft boards.

Zack Martin
6’4″, 308 pounds

Bench Press: 29 reps
Vertical Jump: 28.0″
Broad Jump: 106.0″
3-Cone Drill: 7.65 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.59 seconds

Analysis: Perhaps the only thing that hurt Martin in Indianapolis was the performance of some other elite tackles, with Auburn’s Greg Robinson and Michigan’s Taylor Lewan showing elite measurables.

Of course, everybody knew Martin wouldn’t be a true stud in shorts and a t-shirt and his performance at the Senior Bowl did more to help than the combine did to hurt. There’s still likely a team that’s going to take Martin in the last 10 picks of the first round.

Troy Niklas
6’6″, 270 pounds

Bench Press: 27 reps
Vertical Jump: 32.0″
Broad Jump: 114.0″
3-Cone Drill: 7.57 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.55 seconds
60-yard Shuttle: 12.19 seconds

Analysis: Niklas didn’t run the forty, but did do everything else. He was one of the top performers at tight end and also at the 60 yard shuttle for his position group.

Niklas has a few months to work on getting a time in the 4.6 range before the draft in May. The longer teams get to look at him the better, as his athleticism will be intoxicating for teams thinking they might have found another Rob Gronkowski.

Louis Nix
6’2″, 331 pounds

40-yard Dash: 5.42 seconds
Vertical Jump: 25.5″
Broad Jump: 97.0″
3-Cone Drill: 8.29 seconds

Analysis: Nix reached the weight many wanted him to be at, stating that he lost over 20 pounds from the end of the season to the draft. He had limited participation, not bench pressing or doing either shuttle run as he still comes back from meniscus surgery.

Still, Nix was a hit at the combine, and certainly didn’t hurt his chances of being the first defensive tackle off the draft board, even with Aaron Donald running a ridiculous 4.68 at 285 pounds.

***

Prince Shembo
6’1″, 254 pounds

40-yard Dash: 4.71 seconds
Bench Press: 26 reps
Vertical Jump: 38.5″
Broad Jump: 122.0″
3-Cone Drill: 7.29 seconds
20-yard Shuttle: 4.31 seconds

Analysis: Shembo’s mostly earning headlines for his acknowledgment of his connection to the Seeberg allegations. But he did a nice job athletically as well, putting up numbers that top to bottom were better than Manti Te’o last year.

Shembo is on the short side, with his 6-foot-1 an inch shorter than he was listed on the UND.com roster. But he’s got some explosiveness as well, with a 38.5-inch vertical leap pretty astounding.

Stephon Tuitt
6’5″, 304 pounds

Bench Press: 31 reps

Analysis: Tuitt’s combine was cut short when a small foot fracture turned up on his medical exam. That kept him from showing off the slender physique he brought with him to Indianapolis.

The time table for an injury like Tuitt’s is six to eight weeks, making a Pro Day workout possible, but not necessarily the smartest decision. Still, showing up at 304 was crucial for Tuitt, and the 31 reps on the bench press give you an idea of his impressive strength.

Chris Watt
6’3″, 310 pounds

Bench Press: 29 reps

Analysis: Watt came to the combine still recovering from a knee injury suffered late in the season. He didn’t do himself any harm at the combine, measuring in as expected and putting up impressive numbers on the bench press.

(A 5.50 forty time credited to Watt was previously listed on NFL.com’s Combine results page, but no longer exists.)

He’ll have a few months to continue to get healthy and game tape will likely make sure he’s selected in the draft’s middle-to-late rounds.

 

 

 

Notre Dame adds another 2019 commitment out of Georgia

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Eight months from now, Notre Dame may be forced to sign a smaller recruiting class than usual thanks to the larger class this past recruiting cycle. If that expectation does indeed hold, this past week’s five commitments, including consensus three-star safety Kyle Hamilton’s (Marist High School; Atlanta) on Tuesday evening, will be a hefty portion of the class.

Hamilton becomes the second safety in the class, and in the week, following the Saturday pledge of rivals.com four-star Litchfield Ajavon (Episcopal H.S.; Alexandria, Va.). Hamilton’s list of finalists included Michigan, Georgia, Ohio State and Clemson, a grouping more telling than perhaps his recruiting ranking is.

Some of that expected potential may derive from Hamilton’s 6-foot-3 frame. Such length at safety would be a change for the Irish, currently without a safety taller than six-feet in the rotation. Even heralded incoming-freshman Derrik Allen, also out of Georgia, is listed at only 6-foot-1.

It is a coincidence those two Georgia recruits, one signed and one now verbally-committed, are both safeties. Add in the January commitment of rivals.com three-star cornerback K.J. Wallace (Lovett; Atlanta), and a third defensive back comes from the state, along with class of 2018 signees tight end Tommy Tremble and running back C’Bo Flemister. Five prospects from Georgia, presuming both Hamilton and Wallace do indeed sign with Notre Dame, is not a coincidence.

“My point being is that it’s such a fertile ground in recruiting, you just need to be in [Georgia], and there’s great football players in there,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said in December 2017, during the inaugural early signing period. “We’ve got so many players that we can talk about that came of there. It’s just having a presence and getting back into a very, very good recruiting area for us. We need to have a great presence there.”

No matter what state Hamilton comes from, he could find himself quickly in the mix at safety upon his arrival. Presuming health for the current safety depth chart, juniors Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill will have one year of eligibility remaining apiece upon Hamilton’s enrollment. Junior Alohi Gilman will have two, thanks to spending the 2017 season sidelined following his transfer from Navy. Early-enrolled freshman Griffith and Allen will both have three more years, presuming both play in 2018.

Thus, Hamilton and Ajavon could find themselves backing up that last duo as soon as 2020.

Blue-Gold Game Leftovers: Notre Dame’s offensive ceiling is tantalizing, though also unlikely

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Immediately following the 2017 spring game, I walked by two much smarter, savvier and more veteran Notre Dame reporters on our way to post-game interviews. Our two minutes of exchange included them riffing on various hypothetical position changes that were eventually not seen come fall, including how much better of a guard than a tackle Tommy Kraemer could be. It should be noted, the junior began lining up at guard this spring.

My contribution to the conversation hinged entirely on repeating, “That offense just isn’t ready. It’s not close to ready.”

Of course, that assessment figured the spring game struggles were against a porous Irish defense, something freshly-arrived and since-departed defensive coordinator Mike Elko had already taken tangible steps toward fixing, far quicker than expected.

That evaluation also failed to recognize the potential of a running attack led by Josh Adams. Notre Dame knew it had a stalwart running back, and did not need to see more than eight carries for 39 yards and a touchdown from the lead back.

The point stood, though. The offense was not ready then or in November.

Driving away from this past Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game, the thought bouncing around my pickup’s two-seat cab was simple: This offense is unlikely to reach its ceiling, but if it did, it would be really, absurdly high-powered.

This time, that assessment offers some deference to first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s ability to turn nine returning starters into another strong defense, perhaps superior to last year’s.

The praise of the offense must be hedged thanks to IF after IF after IF after IF. If senior quarterback Brandon Wimbush displays those mechanics and that accuracy against opposing defenses …
If senior running back Dexter Williams (pictured above) decides it is worthwhile to play, and play well, through pain …
If junior receiver Chase Claypool maintains the necessary emotional equilibrium …
If senior tight end Alizé Mack offers a consistent performance, even if not stellar, but stable …

In those four upperclassmen alone, the Irish have unique talents whom opposing defensive coordinators should lose sleep thinking about. They will determine how high this offense’s ceiling is, while the likes of senior receiver Miles Boykin, junior running back Tony Jones and sophomore tight end Cole Kmet will set the floor, along with what looks to be yet another overpowering offensive line (with Kraemer at right guard).

Obviously, the most-promising players always set the height of a vaulted the ceiling. As they perform against Michigan, Stanford and Virginia Tech will determine how the season ends. However, to pinpoint four like this is an extreme end of the spectrum.

Exiting last year’s Blue-Gold Game, it was clear Wimbush needed to learn much more of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s scheme. Aside from that, the only possible ways to increase the offense’s potency was to teach receiver Kevin Stepherson self-discipline and figure out why Mack could not make a gameday impact. The rest was essentially known, even if the running game’s potential was overlooked after the spring exhibition.

Entering this summer, the gap between the offense’s floor and its ceiling is a vast one. To have four question marks of this magnitude speaks to the possible volatility awaiting in the fall. Logically speaking, it is most likely two of the four above IFs become realities. In that case, it will be a good offense, but not the utterly threatening one conceivable. The odds are slim all four come to fruition, but crazier things have happened, especially when discussing the rapid development of 18- to 21-year-olds.

Without Adams following two All-American offensive linemen, this rendition of the Notre Dame offense may take a step backward, but the talent is there for it to actually improve, to carry the day if/when an experienced quarterback picks apart the defense (see: the Seminoles’ Deondre Francois).

That could not be said in 2017.

OTHER QUICK TAKEAWAYS FROM THE BLUE-GOLD GAME:
Much of this will be discussed in greater length in the coming two weeks, but …
— The interior of the offensive line — fifth-year left guard Alex Bars, fifth-year center Sam Mustipher and Kraemer at right guard — is quite a physically-imposing trio. Some defensive ends may find success against first-year starter and junior left tackle Liam Eichenberg, especially early in the season, but the inside trio should at least create massive holes for the Irish running game.

— Ideally Long can deploy Mack and Kmet together, but the spring performance of the latter certainly eases the concerns about the maturation and consistency of the former.

Notre Dame may need an unexpected influx of production from senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery if the fifth-year tackle he is intended to line up alongside, Jonathan Bonner, does not recover fully from a wrist injury suffered in the beginning of 2017. (Robert Franklin/South Bend Tribune via AP)

— Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly insists fifth-year defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s fitness will not be overly-effected by the wrist injury that kept him out of most of spring practice and all of the Blue-Gold Game.

“He’s been doing everything (in weight-lifting) but at lighter weight, and now he’s only a couple of weeks away from being full-go,” Kelly said Saturday. “He was already physically really gifted, so we don’t think that’s going to be a big curve for him, and he’ll be able to start training aggressively when we get back here in June.”

Consider this scribe skeptical. Not only is Kelly often overly-optimistic about injury effects and timetables, but to think missing six months of strength and conditioning will not be noticeable along the defensive interior is idealistic at best. Bonner’s 2017 emergence was a direct result of the arrival of strength and conditioning coordinator Matt Balis.

Without more of that work, the Irish will need to turn to sophomore Kurt Hinish for an increase in snaps, perhaps pushing toward 50 per game with Bonner offering 20-30 and senior Micah Dew-Treadway filling in the balance. Hinish appears to be up to the task, which is necessary, because classmate Darnell Ewell is not.

Notre Dame gains commitments of four-star defensive end and three-star offensive tackle

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At this rate, Notre Dame might fill its 2019 recruiting class by the time the school year ends. With a Sunday morning commitment of a consensus four-star defensive end followed by a Monday evening pledge from a consensus three-star offensive tackle, the Irish class has grown from three recruits to seven in just four days.

The No. 238 prospect in the country and No. 28 at defensive end, per rivals.com, Howard Cross III (St. Joseph High School; Montvale, N.J.) announced his commitment via Twitter shortly after leaving campus from a visit for the Blue-Gold Game, choosing the Irish over offers from Michigan, North Carolina State and Virginia Tech, among others.

“I could tell [current Notre Dame players] really loved the school,” Cross said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “It was really, really big to talk to them. When I was going to all the colleges, that was the main thing I wanted to do. I wanted to get the perspective of the players.”

Cross joins consensus four-star defensive end Hunter Spears (Sachse H.S.; Texas) as half of the four defensive linemen already in the Irish recruiting class. As always, no collegiate defensive line can be deep enough. Considering the previous two recruiting classes have yielded a total of two defensive ends — Kofi Wardlow and Justin Ademilola — opportunity should be aplenty for Cross and Spears early in their careers.

The defensive end duo will likely spend a not-insignificant portion of their collegiate career practices butting heads with Andrew Kristofic (Pine-Richland; Gibsonia, Pa.). If the high school of Pine-Richland jumps off the figurative page to Notre Dame recruitniks, that is because Kristofic has much experience protecting high school teammate and incoming Irish freshman quarterback Phil Jurkovec.

He chose Notre Dame, and new offensive line coach Jeff Quinn, rather than offers from a lengthy list including Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

“The combination that their school is able to provide being one of the very best schools in the entire country academically and one of the very athletically stands out,” Kristofic said to Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I think they have the best combination of those two things on top of being a school that is known for being able to produce such great offensive linemen is something that no other schools really have the combination of all those.

“When you can put together all the things that they can there, it’s certainly not something you can overlook or take for granted.”

The beginning of this influx of commitments came with the Friday decision of consensus four-star offensive tackle John Olmstead (St. Joseph; Metuchen, N.J.), the only other offensive lineman in the class to this point. Of the seven recruits committed to the Irish, five are four-star talents.

Former Notre Dame defensive lineman, Kona Schwenke, dies at 25

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Former Notre Dame defensive lineman Kona Schwenke, 25, reportedly died in his sleep Sunday morning. The cause of death has not yet been confirmed.

Schwenke spent four seasons along the Irish defensive front, culminating in a 23-tackle senior season, in 2013. Attrition along the defensive line in his first two seasons forced Schwenke into playing time, costing him a likely fifth-year with much greater production. He played in 31 games total, making 30 tackles.

Part of a Hawaiian surge in Notre Dame recruiting, Schwenke joined the likes of receiver Robby Toma and linebacker Manti Te’o in coming from the island in 2009 and 2010. The first two committed during Charlie Weis’ tenure, but Schwenke made the leap at the very beginning of Irish head coach Brian Kelly’s career, one of the first recruits to commit to Kelly at Notre Dame. Since then, sophomore defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa has renewed the trend.

Schwenke graduated in 2014 with a degree in anthropology. He then signed with the practice squad of the Kansas City Chiefs, moving around four different NFL franchises chasing his dream. Earlier this month he took part in a scouting event, The Spring League, gaining some notice when he forced Heisman-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel into a fumble.

Former Irish teammates took to social media Sunday afternoon celebrating Schwenke’s life and friendship.