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.

 

 

 

Spring won’t answer all of Notre Dame’s questions

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With spring practice mere weeks away, it is tempting to think Notre Dame’s 2019 will be well in focus by mid-April, if not by the end of March. Some positions may find clarity in that timespan, but other wonderings will hardly be put to rest, if at all. Admittedly, that will not stop discussions of those questions in the interim, including in these parts before spring practice even commences.

Before diving into spring practice previews, let’s acknowledge the things not to be learned before the summer …

Phil Jurkovec’s development will be neither rapid nor dismal this spring. The sample size of drill-heavy moments should not be weighed too heavily when discussing the rising sophomore quarterback’s progress. Barring injury to rising senior Ian Book, Jurkovec will not enter the summer as the Irish starter. Barring injury to Jurkovec, he will not fall lower than second on the depth chart, either.

What may be most crucial to Jurkovec’s short-term success will be the time he spends in the summer studying film of himself throughout the spring. Those lessons could lead to leaps and bounds before August, not necessarily in the meantime.

Notre Dame will not firmly determine a No. 2 cornerback anytime before August, at least not until fifth-year cornerback Shaun Crawford gets a chance to practice healthy following a torn ACL last August. Rising senior Troy Pride will be the unquestioned heir to Julian Love’s role as the best coverage corner while rising sophomore TaRiq Bracy challenges rising senior Donte Vaughn (pictured at top) to be Pride’s counterpart.

One of those two may emerge, but Crawford will still get a chance in the preseason. If nothing else, his ability to prove healthy and capable enough to handle nickel back duties could ease the pressure on finding someone to fit there, thus perhaps altering the equation throughout the entire secondary.

Running backs coach Lance Taylor’s impact will not be perceptible, possibly not for quite awhile. Taylor’s work will be seen in positional recruiting — which could conceivably take a cycle or two to actually yield the desired results — and in the usage of the running backs in offensive coordinator Chip Long’s September game plans.

Just last preseason, Avery Davis looked the part of a dangerous utility knife. His work in the red zone in preseason practices foreshadowed coming headaches for opposing defensive coordinators. Instead, the quarterback-turned-running back managed just 27 touches for 100 yards and no scores. By November, opposing defensive coordinators’ scouting reports barely mentioned Davis.

If Davis or a rising sophomore (C’Bo Flemister more likely than Jahmir Smith) or even the upperclassmen atop the depth chart impress in the passing game this spring, hold the exhilaration until they do so against a Power-Five foe in September, and preferably not one coming off a season viewed as nothing but a defensive calamity. (No offense, Louisville.)

The Irish will have punter and kicker questions into September. Despite the early enrollment of punter Jay Bramblett and a full offseason devoted to rising junior kicker Jonathan Doerer, replacing multi-year starting specialists is not an undertaking to be taken lightly. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly and special teams coordinator Brian Polian will spend more time with the legs than they have in recent years.

Winters in South Bend reduce how much spring work kickers and punters get. The new indoor facility will not be ready for use until mid-to-late summer, meaning every day the Irish have to spend indoors this spring is a day the kickers are unlikely to get more than a few swings in.

Doerer might have an excellent Blue-Gold Game (on April 13), knocking in multiple 40-yard field goals. Bramblett could boom a couple punts with no signs of nerves. Until they show such in pressure situations, their real worth will remain unknown.

Such are the perils of talkin’ ‘bout practice, to quote an 11-time NBA All-Star as All-Star Weekend begins.

Notre Dame’s defensive line recruiting success continues into 2020

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Notre Dame’s recruiting class of 2019 included a defensive line emphasis featuring 5 four-star prospects. That trend has already continued into the next recruiting cycle with the Wednesday commitment from rivals.com four-star defensive tackle Aidan Keanaaina (J.K. Mullen High School; Denver).

The No. 17 defensive tackle in the country, per rivals.com, Keanaaina joins Düsseldorf defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger among the five commits in the Irish class of 2020. Keanaaina holds offers from all the Power Five conferences, including the majority of the Pac 12, led by Oregon and USC, and the majority of the Big 10, led by Michigan and Ohio State.

His anticipatory play is aided by solid tackling form and a wide body. That frame, in particular, should lend itself to further development in a collegiate strength and conditioning program.

By signing two defensive tackles in the class of 2019, the Irish depth chart reached minimum levels at the position. All six tackles currently on that depth chart should return in 2020, making it less of an absolute necessity to sign a pair this cycle, though that remains more likely than not.

Notre Dame officially announces Lance Taylor as RB coach

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Notre Dame finally confirmed the hire of Lance Taylor as running backs coach Tuesday. Taylor’s addition to the Irish coaching staff was first widely reported last month.

Replacing Autry Denson — who took over as head coach at Charleston Southern — Taylor spent the last two seasons coaching receivers with the Carolina Panthers and was the running backs coach at Stanford from 2014 to 2016.

“I was primarily looking for two things,” head coach Brian Kelly said in a statement. “The candidate had to have the right skill set. He needs to be a great teacher and communicator. He also needs to fit Notre Dame, culturally, and Lance, most certainly, possesses all of those qualities. He recruited at an extremely high level during his time at Stanford, and he worked with the very best in the NFL. His ability to bring both of those experiences together makes him a perfect fit for our staff.”

The time at Stanford, in particular, sets up Taylor for success at Notre Dame, having successfully recruited players to an academic institution and then developed them to on-field success. Namely, Taylor recruited Bryce Love and worked with both him and Christian McCaffrey.

RELATED READING: Lance Taylor checks all the boxes Notre Dame needs in new running backs coach

“I’ve been blessed to work at some incredible places in my career, but Notre Dame is truly special,” Taylor said. “I’m honored and humbled to represent this incredible University as its running backs coach. I’d like to thank both Brian Kelly and Jack Swarbrick for this opportunity. I’m excited to get on campus, meet our players and get to work.”

Taylor will have his work cut out for him this spring as the Irish need to replace Dexter Williams. Rising junior Jafar Armstrong is the presumed starter, granted health, with rising senior Tony Jones his primary backup. After those two, Taylor has nothing but raw and unproven talent awaiting him in rising sophomores Jahmir Smith and C’Bo Flemister and early-enrolled freshman Kyren Williams, not to mention rising junior quarterback-turned-running back Avery Davis.

No other coaching staff turnover should be expected at this point in the offseason.

Leading candidates to be Notre Dame captains

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Notre Dame has not begun spring practice yet, unlike Labor Day opponent Louisville. (Yes, really, the Cardinals held their first practice under new head coach Scott Satterfield on Monday.) At some point near the beginning of spring practice, though, Irish head coach Brian Kelly will likely name a few 2019 team captains.

Notre Dame narrowed the candidates for the parlor game of guessing those captains by announcing the eight “SWAT” leaders earlier this month, a subset identified as the motivating and organizing forces of offseason activities. Those eight …

— Senior quarterback Ian Book
— Senior left tackle Liam Eichenberg
— Senior safety Jalen Elliott
— Fifth-year receiver Chris Finke
— Senior safety Alohi Gilman (pictured at top)
— Junior right tackle Robert Hainsey
— Senior defensive end Khalid Kareem
— Senior defensive end Julian Okwara

Half of the eight could have eligibility in 2020 — Book, Eichenberg, Gilman and Hainsey — but the better indicators of captainship do not inherently tie to that. For example, it is expected Gilman will head to the NFL following the 2019 season if he plays well enough to warrant that pondering at all. His transfer following the 2017 season was entirely due to professional aspirations. That, along with his competitive attitude very clearly demonstrated during last season’s unbeaten run, makes Gilman a frontrunner in this speculation.

Book, meanwhile, is unlikely to be one of the captains simply because the starting quarterback already serves in that role to some de facto extent. The coaching staff generally prefers to elevate a few others while not taking away from the inherent nature of the quarterback position.

On the other hand, the Irish have had at least one captain on the offensive line each of the last seven seasons. Either Eichenberg or Hainsey seems positioned to continue that, the former with an additional year in the program but the latter with one more season of playing time under his belt.

Presuming one of those offensive linemen joins Gilman, it remains likely Notre Dame names at least one more captain. His rise from walk-on to offensive contributor and multiple-year starter makes Finke uniquely relatable to the entire roster.

Guessing here is, of course, inconsequential, but with spring practice about three weeks away on the horizon, pondering now helps pass that time.