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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.

 

 

 

Swarbrick talks improvements to Shamrock Series opponents

Shamrock Fenway
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Notre Dame is taking 2017 off from the Shamrock Series. When it comes back, expect to see an improvement in opponents.

With the remodeled Notre Dame Stadium set to be finished in 2017, playing seven home games is a natural fit. But with the neutral-site series set to return in 2018, athletic director Jack Swarbrick has grand plans for improving the series that’s taken the Irish to some iconic venues, but has lacked much punch when it comes to high-profile opponents.

Speaking exclusively with Pete Sampson of Irish Illustrated, Swarbrick laid out some grand plans for the revitalization of the game.

“When the opponent and the venue and the place all contribute to the story, that’s when it works the best,” Swarbrick told Irish Illustrated. “I still want to maintain that. The difference will be that many more of them now will be led by the opponent.

“Now it can be, ‘I got this opponent.’ Now where can we go with them that works with what we’re trying to do?”

With Notre Dame returning to San Antonio for the second time in the Shamrock Series and repeating an opponent with Army as well, it’s clear that this year’s game checked off some other boxes when it got decided. Swarbrick acknowledged some of the restrictions that have held him back, with the reboot of Notre Dame’s schedule with five ACC games and other television considerations really limiting the team’s options.

“What we’ve been able to do in the Shamrock Series to this point is limit ourselves to games we already had scheduled that we would move,” Swarbrick told Sampson. “It was a very small range of people that we could do these deals without getting into television conflicts. With more lead time we have the runway we need to make these games, the three pieces of it – geography, venue and opponent – come together a little bit more.”

Rumors of new venues aren’t new. Brian Kelly has discussed Lambeau Field before. There’s been talk of a game in Rome. And rumblings of Michigan’s return to the schedule won’t go away.

Just recently Kelly tweeted out a picture from another venue that wouldn’t be too shabby.

But there’s an opening for another step forward for the program and Swarbrick is the right man to lead the change. He’s already led the Irish athletic department through a move to the ACC and helped navigate the “seismic changes” that resulted in the College Football Playoff. With the ambitious Campus Crossroads project near complete this seems like a perfect next project for the head of Irish athletics to take on.

 

Irish A-to-Z: Ian Book

Ian Book
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Notre Dame’s incoming freshman steps into one of the most harrowing depth charts in college football. But he also comes to South Bend prepared, a freshman season where anything is possible.

Book may be No. 4 in a four-deep that includes three of the most intriguing quarterbacks in college football. But he’s also a play away from being the team’s backup. That’s the plan heading into freshman year, with Brandon Wimbush hoping to keep a redshirt on this season after being forced into action in 2015.

A highly productive high school quarterback, Book didn’t wow any of the recruiting evaluators. But Mike Sanford took dead aim at Book and landed a quarterback he thinks can step in and be ready if needed.

 

IAN BOOK
6’0″, 190 lbs.
Freshman, No. 4, QB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Three-star prospect who had offers from Boise State and Washington State before Notre Dame jumped in and landed him. His previous relationship with Mike Sanford from his time in Boise made the difference.

Undersized but cerebral player who was highly prolific in high school. Named conference MVP in senior season at Oak Ridge high school and was the No. 14 overall pro-style QB according to Rivals.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

If Book is going to be a big-time college quarterback, it’ll be because he’s got a knack for the game that you don’t see from his physical skill-set. He’s undersized and a little bit slight. He’s got good wheels, but doesn’t play like a speed demon.

You don’t need an elite set of tools to be successful in Brian Kelly’s system. And while a comparison to Tommy Rees will come off as a slight, it’s a compliment—especially after hearing the staff speak confidently about Book’s ability to come in and know the system well enough to be ready to play as a freshman, if necessary.

(Book is also faster than Rees, so relax everybody.)

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Unless the sky is falling, Book is wearing a redshirt. And that’s the best thing for him—even if he’ll prepare as the emergency No. 3, a duty Wimbush was pushed into last year.

A look at Notre Dame’s depth chart and the war chest of talent accumulated at the position makes these next five years look like an uphill climb to get onto the field. But until Book steps foot on campus, all bets are off.

Remember, Tommy Rees entered Notre Dame with two other quarterbacks at his position, both rated better than him by recruiting analysts. But it was Rees that pushed past the five-star recruit already on campus for two seasons and his two classmates.

Of course, DeShone Kizer, Malik Zaire and Brandon Wimbush aren’t Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix and Luke Massa. But until we see Book at the college level, it’s a wait and see proposition.

But the freshman has a key role on the 2016 team. Even if everybody hopes he won’t have to do it.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship
Jonathan Bonner

Irish A-to-Z: Jonathan Bonner

Jon Bonner Rivals
Rivals via Twitter
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After two seasons of limited duty, there’s a road to the field for Jonathan Bonner. The rising junior, who spent last year mostly watching and learning as Brian VanGorder and Keith Gilmore played a skeleton rotation, has a chance to break into a position group that’s searching for answers that Bonner seems well-suited to provide.

But Bonner also plays behind the team’s best defensive lineman, with senior Isaac Rochell poised to anchor the front seven. So as the rising junior moves into his third season in South Bend, he’ll need to show a versatile set of skills to get onto the field.

 

JONATHAN BONNER
6’3″, 286 lbs.
Junior, No. 55, DL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Bonner may not have been a highly-touted recruit, but he was just starting to rack up impressive offers when he pledged to Notre Dame. Bonner earned a scholarship offer at every summer camp he attended, and his commitment to the Irish came after he dominated some of the best offensive line prospects in the country at Notre Dame’s summer camp.

An All-State performer and the defensive player of the year in St. Louis. Also a more than impressive student-athlete, with a note he wrote to himself as a grade schooler a pretty incredible piece of maturity.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in 10 games, making 10 tackles and notching one sack. Played a season-high 39 snaps along the defensive line in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. Saw double-digit snaps against Texas, UMass, Wake Forest and Boston College.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

This seems pretty solid.

I’m buying Bonner’s future, though I’m a little less sure that he’ll break loose in 2015. With Isaac Rochell capable of being a frontline player, Bonner getting on the field might mean Rochell’s off of it, which I just don’t see happening too often.

But if there’s a beauty to Brian VanGorder’s defense—at least when it’s playing like it did the first half of the season—it’s the ability to mix and match. And if there’s no way to find Bonner a role in this defense, especially as the Irish try to find someone to come off the edge, then it’s more on the young prospect’s knowledge base than anything a coaching staff can do.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

This might not be a make or break season for Bonner, especially since he’s got a fifth year available. But I think it could be. With the opportunity to provide a disruption from the interior of the defensive line, Bonner needs to find a home in a position group that could use a versatile defender who can both hold up at the point of attack and get to the quarterback.

Bonner started at outside linebacker, but quickly moved to the front four. Last year’s progress was slowed by a turf toe injury in April, short-circuiting a sold spring. There wasn’t a lot of opportunity to contribute in 2015, but there was certainly a need for someone to provide a pass rush and Bonner wasn’t given that chance—something that speaks to where he was as a developmental prospect last year.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I think Bonner will find a niche on the inside or third downs, considering neither Jerry Tillery nor Jarron Jones look like pass rush threats. That could kick open a spot for Bonner on the inside, or it could allow him to play at the strong side if Rochell slides inside.

Of course, that’s mostly determined by Bonner, who has flashed talent and athleticism, but hasn’t translated that to the field yet. Some think Bonner is one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster, and he’s certainly one of the team’s better workout warriors. But that needs to transition to the football field with some productivity, a key development piece for Keith Gilmore and a uncertain front four.

Bonner spoke with confidence this spring that his knowledge base was now matching his skill-set. If he’s able to put everything together, he could be a very nice complementary piece to the front four.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars
Asmar Bilal
Hunter Bivin
Grant Blankenship

Jarrett Grace signs FA contract with Chicago Bears

SOUTH BEND, IN - SEPTEMBER 5: Jarrett Grace #59 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action during a game against the Texas Longhorns at Notre Dame Stadium on September 5, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. Notre Dame defeated Texas 38-3. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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Former Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace has signed with the Chicago Bears. The former Rockne Award winner will continue his improbable return from a devastating leg injury during OTAs and training camp, fighting for a roster spot on the NFC North squad.

Grace worked out for the Bears at a tryout camp and Chicago made the roster move official Wednesday, signing Grace and releasing linebacker Danny Mason.

After redshirting as a freshman and sitting behind Manti Te’o, Grace moved into the starting lineup as a junior and led the Irish in tackles before suffering a severe leg injury against Arizona State. It took nearly two years for Grace to return to duty, needing to re-learn how to run as he underwent multiple procedures to repair the rod that held Grace’s bone in place.

He played in 32 games for the Irish, finishing with 78 total tackles.