Leftovers & Links: Undrafted free-agent fate may be better for Notre Dame alums than getting drafted, including Jack Coan and Kevin Austin

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 23 USC at Notre Dame
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Only two Notre Dame players getting called in this weekend’s NFL draft was unexpected, but it could ultimately be a good thing for them. For quarterback Jack Coan, receiver Kevin Austin and defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa — three names considered as possible draft picks, in order of likelihood from most to least, that all went unbeckoned over the weekend — they were not funneled into a roster by demand. Instead, they were able to choose one.

Running back Kyren Williams’ reaction to getting a phone call from Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay in the fifth round on Saturday emphasizes how much of a dream the draft is for any young football player. No one should take away from the fulfillment and catharsis of that moment. For Williams, in particular, joining the Super Bowl-winning roster with a dynamic offense may work out wonderfully.

Two and three seasons into their respective careers, current Rams running backs Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson are far from established. Williams could end up contributing as a rookie. He certainly thinks he will, and it was that self-confidence that spurred him to back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons.

But if it was entirely up to Williams, might he have instead chosen to go to another NFC contender in California, just a bit further north? The San Francisco 49ers lost by a field goal in the NFC Championship Game despite not having a running back average as much as two yards per carry. In this instance, perhaps Williams would still prefer the Rams, given the arguable ties for a St. Louis native.

But for Coan, Austin and Tagovailoa-Amosa, going undrafted allowed them the chance to curate their next opportunity.

Coan will learn from veteran quarterback Matt Ryan with the Indianapolis Colts while conceivably having a chance to usurp former Texas slinger Sam Ehlinger for the backup role. Austin can now run routes underneath passes from Trevor Lawrence with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Tagovailoa-Amosa finally gets to be closer to his home of Hawaii. Las Vegas not only offers 3-4 nonstop flights a day to Honolulu compared to Chicago’s one but is also a three-hour shorter flight, not to mention he can now save 90 minutes driving to the airport.

Those on- and off-field concerns that are only applicable when a player falls out of the draft may be the greatest and most consistent sign that the entire concept of the draft is unfair to its labor in a unique way. Mandating a plyer goes to a specific location if wanting to earn anything — not earn the most, but earn anything — in his chosen field is outdated at best and immoral at worst. Involving significant amounts of money does not change the exploitative nature of the draft.

The last time Notre Dame sent only two players into the NFL draft was 2017, when quarterback DeShone Kizer went in the second round and defensive lineman Isaac Rochell went in the seventh.

Unlike the three discussed above, there were no expectations of defensive tackle Kurt Hinish (signed with the Houston Texans), linebacker Drew White (Washington Commanders) or linebacker Isaiah Pryor (New Orleans Saints) getting drafted.

Next spring should not include such low numbers. Four current Irish players have been included in the first round of multiple mock drafts already. Obviously, those projections are good only as content at this point, but it is still hard to imagine any of them falling out of the draft completely. Those four: tight end Michael Mayer, defensive end Isaiah Foskey, safety Brandon Joseph and offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson.

Franky, Joseph’s arrival at Notre Dame from Northwestern may not have been noted loudly enough this spring, given those projections. Or perhaps the mock-draft industry is nothing but an echo chamber.

ON JACK COAN
For the first time in recorded history, this space actually worked ahead going into the weekend. Articles already existed recapping Coan’s, Austin’s and Tagovailoa-Amosa’s draft status and results. Let’s not let the entirety of those passages go to waste …

Coan transferred to Notre Dame after three seasons at Wisconsin, including 18 starts and a Rose Bowl appearance in 2019. A broken foot sidelined Coan for all of 2020, at which point the Badgers had found their next quarterback in Graham Mertz, so with one year of eligibility remaining, Coan found a starting role in South Bend.

Notre Dame desperately needed experience in its quarterback room in 2021. Aside from Coan, Irish quarterbacks had completed all of four career passes heading into the season, and only two varsity quarterbacks were healthy enough to even consider playing.

Coan threw for 3,150 yards in his one season at Notre Dame with 25 touchdowns compared to only seven interceptions. He, and the Irish offense as a whole, struggled through the first half of the season, but they then found an efficient gear in the last eight games of the season.

Coan’s 2021 highlights included a game-winning touchdown pass against Toledo only moments after he dislocated his finger and had it popped back in on the sideline on national television. Trainer Mike Bean acted fast enough that Coan did not miss a play. The receiving end of that score, sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, completely missed that Coan suffered an injury at all. Coan’s backfield partner did not.

“It was kind of crazy,” sophomore running back Chris Tyree said after that victory. “… That just shows his grit, his intensity, his mentality. I think he knew to show that grit was really important for our offense. It was a great performance for him.”

After that, Coan struggled for a month until the final minutes of a dramatic win at Virginia Tech. A newfound “Hurry Up Jack” approach lessened the onus on Notre Dame’s offensive line and allowed Coan to simply drop back and fire. Through the last seven games of the Irish regular season, Coan completed 73.8 percent of his passes and gained 9.17 yards per pass attempt.

That efficiency fell by the wayside in the Fiesta Bowl, with Coan dropping back a program-record 70 times, going 38-of-68 for 509 yards and five touchdowns, as Notre Dame gave up on its running approach against Oklahoma State’s vaunted defensive line before the game really even began.

ON AUSTIN
Austin’s Irish career was hampered by a sophomore year suspension and multiple foot injuries in his junior year, but he led Notre Dame with 888 receiving yards and seven touchdowns in 2021 on 48 catches. That final season showed what Irish coaches had long seen in the former four-star recruit out of Florida.

Austin closed the season strong, in particular, racking up 12 catches for 230 yards and a touchdown in the final two games. His production in the regular-season finale at Stanford alone (six catches for 125 yards) was more than he managed in his first three years at Notre Dame, putting together six catches for 108 yards.

Much more could have been expected from Austin in 2020, especially, but a broken foot in preseason practices sidelined him into October, and then two games later, Austin broke it again. Between that injury overlapping with the universal pandemic eligibility waiver and a season-long yet never publicly acknowledged suspension in 2019, Austin had at least one more season of eligibility remaining if he wanted it and perhaps two.

But returning to Notre Dame in 2022 was never a distinct possibility, given the success Austin enjoyed in 2021 and the tumultuous tenor of his Irish tenure. Instead, he ran a surprising 4.43-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine in early March, ranking near the top of the receivers’ testing in nearly every drill in Indianapolis.

ON TAGOVAILOA-AMOSA
Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa arrived at Notre Dame too heavy to play his preferred position, defensive end, so instead he immediately contributed at tackle. He did so with such success, he spent the next four years on the interior, 2018 interrupted by a broken foot. The Hawaiian then returned to South Bend for a fifth season in 2021 to chase his NFL dream as a defensive end.

A 2021 captain,  Tagovailoa-Amosa learned he would be wearing the literal ‘C’ on his chest from afar, having returned to Hawaii after learning of his father’s unexpected death shortly before the season. A few weeks later, he missed postgame interviews so he could attend his father’s funeral via Zoom.

Tagovail0a-Amosa never faltered in 2021, though, instead blossoming in his new position. He may have made only 25 tackles with six for loss including two sacks, both against Toledo, but he consistently harassed the opposing quarterbacks and will serve as a template for Notre Dame’s “Big” end moving forward. He finishes his Irish career with 75 total tackles including 17 for loss with five sacks.

But his best moment came on Senior Day, along with some beaming redemption. Back in 2019, Tagovailoa-Amosa had snagged a loose ball out of mid-air and rumbled toward the end zone against Virginia, only for Cavaliers quarterback Bryce Perkins to track him down a few yards short of the end zone.

Commence two years of grief from his teammates.

“He wasn’t quite fast enough,” defensive tackle Howard Cross said two years later, only a freshman when Tagovailoa-Amosa tried to break the goal line. “We always made fun of him for that.”

Perhaps it was that early-career weight, something Tagovailoa-Amosa blamed on his love for his mother’s cooking, that slowed him down too much, because when another opportunity came against Georgia Tech in 2021, there was no stopping No. 95.

It helped, of course, that he had a few extra blockers this time.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Steve Angeli’s, Jadarian Price’s spring star turns forecast differing Notre Dame futures
Third elite defensive end commit further bolsters Notre Dame’s class of four-star prospects
Former Notre Dame star Kyle Hamilton goes No. 14 to the Baltimore Ravens
Notre Dame’s human highlight reel the last two years, Kyren Williams drafted by the Los Angeles Rams

OUTSIDE READING
Marcus Freeman era off to a fast start at Notre Dame
NFL Mock Draft 2023: Predicting where Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud and other top prospects will go
2023 NFL Mock Draft: Way-too-early first round predictions
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