When catching up with the local media over the weekend, Brian Kelly revealed that he asked the NFL’s advisory committee for evaluations of three juniors: defensive end Stephon Tuitt, tight end Troy Niklas and running back George Atkinson. The deadline to enter the NFL Draft is January 15.
That Tuitt would receive an evaluation is a no-brainer. The 6-foot-6, 322-pound defensive end is believed to be a future first round pick when he decides to head to the NFL, a decision Tuitt hasn’t made. After the team’s awards banquet, where Tuitt took home the team’s award for lineman of the year, he shed a bit of light on the decision-making process, saying that he, his mother and Kelly will weigh the pros and cons before making a decision. There’s reason to think that Tuitt can certainly have a better season next year, especially if he enters the offseason healthy.
That evaluation submitted for Niklas also makes sense, as the hulking junior put together a breakout season on his way to becoming a Mackey Award semifinalist. With the NFL becoming more and more dependent on jumbo athletes like Niklas, the Irish’s track record of spitting out NFL talent alone makes him worth a look. Add to that Niklas’ 28 catches and five touchdowns, paired with his size and blocking ability, and you’ve got a guy that’ll be highly valued by NFL teams.
Niklas talked a little bit ($) about the evaluation process, seeing it more as a to-do list for his senior season than an impending decision-maker.
“Definitely some key takeaways, what they think I need to improve in my game,” Niklas told IrishIllustrated.com. “Definitely some good things to work on in the off-season. Just having a little bit of information at the next level so you’re not going into it next year kind of clueless.”
The wild card in all of this is Atkinson. The enigmatic running back led the Irish with 6.0 yards per carry this season, but seemed to disappear just as often as he dominated play. Atkinson’s home run potential is obvious, but after running for 148 yards against Oklahoma, including an 80-yard touchdown run, he ran for just three yards a carry against Arizona State, when he was given 18 carries against the Sun Devils mediocre rush defense.
From then on, he never got more than eight touches in a game, finishing the regular season with just one yard on four carries against Stanford. Atkinson’s size and sprinter speed make him an intriguing NFL prospect, yet you can’t help but think that Atkinson’s chances at being a feature back are gone, and his career on Sundays depends on his kick return abilities and niche skills.
Those that heard this interview last week could wonder if there’s some discontent between the Atkinson family and the Irish coaching staff. In addition to George’s limited touches, twin brother Josh hasn’t made it into the two-deep at cornerback and is now supplying depth at wide receiver. The evaluation could be three-fold for Atkinson. Add an objective third-party, reinforce the coaching staff’s point of view, and satisfy the frustrations of a father who likely only wants what’s best for his sons.
If Irish fans are wondering about a timeline for any NFL decisions, a look back at past years gives you an idea of the timing. Michael Floyd decided to return on January 12. Tyler Eifert decided on January 6. With the Irish bowl game done before the New Year, Tuitt will have plenty of time to make his decision.