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Friday at 4: On Notre Dame’s six-star recruits

Notre Dame has succeeded before under head coach Brian Kelly in landing “six-star recruits,” Kelly’s typical description of players returning to school rather than heading to the NFL Draft. The most notable string of such welcome additions to the Irish roster have been at left tackle, naturally.

Current fifth-year left tackle Mike McGlinchey could have certainly headed to the NFL a year ago, likely hearing his name called in the first round. Before him, Ronnie Stanley and Zack Martin each returned to Notre Dame for a year more than they needed to if their aspirations were purely driven by professional considerations.

Receiver Michael Floyd announced his return to the Irish shortly after 2010’s Sun Bowl. At that point, his record had been largely clean for long enough to have solidly established himself as an NFL prospect.

Defensive tackle Sheldon Day considered the NFL following his junior year, highlighted by 40 tackles. Instead, he bolstered a Notre Dame defensive line in 2015, earning second-team All-American honors.

Even cornerback KeiVarae Russell’s decision to reenroll for the 2015 season after an academic suspension his junior year meant he passed up possible NFL opportunities. He then pursued those rather than use up his eligibility in 2016.

Kelly has a track record of making these sales pitches successfully. (That is not a complete list of such “recruiting” victories.) Obviously, it is not a 100 percent hit rate. Russell left a possible fifth year on the table. Quarterback DeShone Kizer never genuinely considered a third season as starter. Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and receiver Will Fuller all left after their junior years when another year of collegiate competition could have arguably helped their draft stock. In the long run, it appears to have worked out for two of the three, with injuries plaguing Niklas throughout his time with the Arizona Cardinals. (Again, there have been other examples, such as defensive tackle Louis Nix, running back C.J. Prosise and linebacker Jaylon Smith.)

There is no inherently right or wrong decision for these athletes. It is absolutely a personal one dictated by circumstances, priorities and positional emphases. Both Kelly and this year’s players in question will weigh those factors over the next two weeks.

JUNIOR RUNNING BACK JOSH ADAMS
This space has made its thoughts clear: Go, Adams, go to the NFL. A running back with two years of nagging injuries needs to capitalize when he has his chance, and it may be difficult to improve Adams’ stock in the eyes of NFL front offices after this outstanding season.

If Adams returns for his senior year, kudos to him. It would be an absolute boon for the Irish offense and immediately raise both the ceiling and the floor for 2018. But that does not mean he should.

Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown’s father advocates he go to the NFL this year. St. Brown claims he has not yet made that decision. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

JUNIOR RECEIVER EQUANIMEOUS ST. BROWN
St. Brown would be heading to the NFL trading largely on his sophomore year due to the disappointment that has been his 2017. His father, John Brown, has made it clear publicly he advocates for St. Brown to head to the NFL. The one actually making the decision, though, has insisted he has not made such a decision at this point.

“I haven’t made my mind up yet,” St. Brown told Blue & Gold Illustrated. “I’m going to see how the game goes and then talk to my parents. … I haven’t been thinking about it. It’s a tough decision, I haven’t made my mind up.”

While it may be true St. Brown hasn’t picked his path, it is foolish to believe he has not thought about this in the last month.

The “Go” argument is simple: St. Brown would be a likely draft pick and could begin the next phase of his career a year earlier than otherwise. Notre Dame’s offense this season did not exactly showcase his skillset — a skillset that cannot be denied, combining athleticism with length and above average hands. There is only limited reason to think that would change next year.

The “Stay” argument is equally obvious: His 31 catches for 468 yards and four touchdowns through 12 games this season included few moments that will wow talent evaluators. His stock can certainly go up, though there is no guarantee it will.

One would think Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long is borderline desperate for St. Brown to return next season as sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson looks unlikely to be with Notre Dame any longer. Replacing Stepherson’s playmaking will be difficult enough. Replacing both big-play threats would be a miserable task with little in the way of obvious possibilities waiting in the wings.

In just one season, junior linebacker Te’von Coney went from an established backup providing rotational depth to a possible (and understandable) early entrant to the NFL Draft. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

JUNIOR LINEBACKER TE’VON CONEY
Coney’s breakout season undeniably created a high point for his consideration on this topic. The question at hand is how much the NFL may believe the one season was a fluke. If his 99 tackles, including 13.0 for loss, are taken at face value, then perhaps heading to the NFL and finding a home as an inside linebacker in a physical division makes sense. If, however, the season is not enough evidence for the NFL to offer a high draft grade and Coney’s lack of experience in coverage is pointed to as an area to improve, then he should see reason for another year under Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s tutelage.

If that is indeed the case, Elko should be licking his lips. Yes, losing senior linebackers Nyles Morgana and Greer Martini is an unfortunate reality, but rare is the team that returns two linebackers as established as Coney and senior Drue Tranquill, who already announced an intention to return for a fifth year.

Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery has yet to reach his full potential, but his size alone will catch the NFL’s attention if he heads to the Draft. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

JUNIOR DEFENSIVE TACKLE JERRY TILLERY
Looking at Notre Dame’s sudden December interest in a few defensive tackle recruits, the tea leaves may point toward Tillery heading to the NFL. His physical size alone makes him an enticing prospect, and declaring for the Draft after his best season would make sense.

Could he improve? Absolutely.

Would Elko like him back, especially considering senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner’s stated intention to forgo a fifth year? Undoubtedly.

Could Tillery’s departure be overcome? The emergence of current freshmen Myron Tagovaiola-Amosa and Kurt Hinish make that concept feasible. If combining them with some of the yet-to-produce juniors, namely Elijah Taylor and Micah Dew-Treadway, current freshman Darnell Ewell, and incoming freshmen Jayson Ademilola and Ja’Mion Franklin, then Elko might have enough of a defensive tackle rotation to compensate for the lack of experience or developed talent.

THE REST
Technically speaking, senior defensive end Jay Hayes has a decision to make, but it seems a foregone conclusion he will return. His Draft stock is not readily-apparent, even after a career year.

Bonner, meanwhile, looks to be headed to the next step of his life, at least partly due to his mother battling cancer.

Oh, and senior left guard Quenton Nelson could be a top-five draft pick. No fifth year of eligibility should trump that opportunity.

The sole benefit to not playing for a national championship is these players have a solid two weeks after the season to contemplate this decision, and Kelly has two weeks to make his sales pitches.

The deadline for entry into the NFL Draft is Jan. 15.