Notre Dame Football: George Atkinson

OLYMPIA FIELDS, Ill. -- Brian Kelly was pleased with Notre Dame's draft showing two weeks ago. His comments before the draft had suggested that he was less-than-pleased with every former Irish player in the draft.

But Kelly says that there is a middle ground, as he is happy to help his players pursue the NFL, so long as the allure of the pro dream doesn't cloud their judgments while in school.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame
AP Photo/Frank Franklin IIStephon Tuitt drew some ire from Brian Kelly for his NFL draft decision.
"It was a matter of priorities for me. It was just a matter of making sure that the priorities were placed in the right perspective," Kelly said. "I have no problem talking about the NFL and making sure that it's the dream, if that's your dream, that we keep that dream alive for you, and that we provide you every opportunity to get there. I just felt that maybe that the priority maybe got pushed out of what I believe to be the pecking order."

That pecking order, he said, is a degree, a playing career with the Irish and then, if everything breaks right, the NFL.

The Irish's eight draftees this season featured three underclassmen, with Kelly clearly irked by the decisions of juniors Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III to turn pro. He mentioned as much on national signing day, saying that he needed to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL, and that he would have a serious problem recruiting someone whose intentions were to spend just three years in school.

Kelly's intent, he explained recently, is the same as others in his position. Notre Dame, after all, made waves this past season by sending top recruiting targets "Pots of Gold" -- 477 pieces of mail to represent what had been the school's number of NFL draft picks.

"If I feel like you're not playing for Notre Dame, and you're playing for your NFL career before you're playing for Notre Dame, that's where the rub is for me," Kelly said. "So if I get a little bit off on comments about a guy, it could be because that NFL is starting to overtake playing for Notre Dame. It's not just me, though. Every college football coach in the BCS has got to deal with the same thing, just have to be very careful with it, you have to be very good with your players about it.

"But it's a fine line, it's a balancing act. You want what's best for your player, right? Because you want his career to continue and have a chance to play in the NFL, but you want what's best for Notre Dame, too. So you have to be very careful with the two. I just don't want that to be NFL, then Notre Dame."

Coming off the Irish's best draft turnout since they had 10 players picked in the 1994 draft, Kelly -- who has now had four first-rounders picked at Notre Dame -- sees the pro results as validation of what he's been building during his five-year run in South Bend, Ind. Only LSU (nine) had more players drafted this year than Notre Dame, which was tied with Alabama for the second-best showing two weeks ago.

"I think more than anything else is that we're developing our players. That the players are developing, and I think the NFL really likes the program and what we're doing within the program," Kelly said. "They like the way that they're being developed from a mental and physical standpoint. They believe that they can take the rigors of being in the NFL, from the year-round conditioning, from the way we practice, from the way they prepare. I think they look at it in totality, they see everything.

"And look, that doesn't mean you're going to have eight guys every year, but when they see a guy that they think can play, they're going to take a shot at a kid from Notre Dame."

Irish lunch links

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I should've trademarked this stadium grass selling idea when I had the chance.
Notre Dame walked away from NFL draft weekend with eight of its former players getting picked, tied with Alabama for the second most of any school in the country, behind LSU's nine. The eight picks also marked the most in a single draft for the Irish in 20 years, as they had 10 draftees in 1994.

In addition, six former Notre Dame players signed with NFL clubs after the draft, with five of those players coming from last season's team.

Seven of Notre Dame's defensive starters from the Discover BCS National Championship following the 2012 season have now been drafted as well: Kapron Lewis-Moore (Ravens, 200th), Manti Te'o (Chargers, 38th) and Zeke Motta (Falcons, 244th) last year; Stephon Tuitt (Steelers, 46th), Louis Nix (Texans, 83rd), Prince Shembo (Falcons, 139th) and Bennett Jackson (Giants, 187th) this year.

It's not a stretch to say that linebacker Danny Spond, who also started against Alabama in the title game, was on track to be drafted prior to retiring before last season because of hemiplegic migraines. It's also worth noting that safety Jamoris Slaughter, who was drafted 175th overall by the Browns last year, started on the Irish's 2012 defense before suffering a season-ending Achilles' tear in Week 3. Two defensive starters from that title game, KeiVarae Russell and Matthias Farley, still have two years of eligibility left at Notre Dame.

Here's a recap of Notre Dame's 2014 draft weekend. Irish transfers Shaquelle Evans (fourth round, 114th overall) and Aaron Lynch (fifth, 150th) were both drafted as well.

DRAFTED

LT Zack Martin, Dallas Cowboys (first round, 16th overall)

DE Stephon Tuitt, Pittsburgh Steelers (second, 46th)

TE Troy Niklas, Arizona Cardinals (second, 52nd)

NG Louis Nix, Houston Texans (third, 83rd)

LG Chris Watt, San Diego Chargers (third, 89th)

LB Prince Shembo, Atlanta Falcons (fourth, 139th)

CB Bennett Jackson, New York Giants (sixth, 187th)

WR TJ Jones, Detroit Lions (sixth, 189th)

UNDRAFTED FREE AGENT SIGNINGS

RB George Atkinson III, Oakland Raiders

LB Dan Fox, New York Giants

LB Carlo Calabrese, Cleveland Browns

QB Tommy Rees, Washington Redskins

NG Kona Schwenke, Kansas City Chiefs

C/G Mike Golic Jr., New Orleans Saints
No Notre Dame players will be at Radio City Music Hall for this weekend's NFL draft. No matter. The event could end up being one of the biggest pro showcases the Irish have ever been a part of.

There is a chance, albeit an outside one, that Notre Dame could hear 12 of its former players' names called in New York. If that happens, it would mark the Irish's biggest draft haul in 64 years, since the program had 13 former players taken in the 1950 draft. Notre Dame's two biggest drafts came several years before that, as it had 16 former players taken in the 1946 draft and 15 taken one year before that, in 1945.

Let's not forget that Danny Spond was in position to play himself into a draft pick before retiring last summer, which would have swelled the Irish's potential picks this weekend to 13. (Note: This number does not include transfer Aaron Lynch, an early entrant from USF.) The fact that a dozen former Irish players have a chance to be drafted is an obvious testament to the strides made in the Brian Kelly era.

Of course, it can be argued that only three of the Irish's 12 draft hopefuls -- Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III -- were true Kelly recruits, but as our friend Scott Janssen over at uhnd.com recently noted, the Irish's draft success under Kelly is more than just a coincidence.
If Notre Dame’s ability to develop NFL talent is connected to its long-term success, one look at Notre Dame’s draft history since the last national championship in 1988 clearly highlights why the Fighting Irish have been largely mediocre during the years after Lou Holtz’s departure and before Kelly’s arrival.

Notre Dame’s ability to produce elite, first-round NFL talent has been nearly non-existent since Lou Holtz’s departure in 1997. Bob Davie and Charlie Weis each oversaw five different draft classes and were only able to produce one first round draft selection. Tyrone Willingham, who oversaw two fewer NFL draft classes while head coach at Notre Dame, managed to produce one first round draft choice in center Jeff Faine, making Willingham’s production of first round selections slightly better than that of either Weis or Davie.

At this stage of the spring, Zack Martin is a virtual lock to be taken in the first round. Louis Nix and Tuitt could be as well. All three getting drafted Thursday would give Kelly six first round picks at Notre Dame, doubled the combined total of Willingham, Weis and Davie.

Looks like the pots of gold could be getting a bit heavier for high schoolers thinking about the Irish.
One byproduct of George Atkinson III's early departure from Notre Dame? He's never been this far away from his brother.

"Definitely, and the longest for sure," Atkinson said with a laugh.

[+] Enlarge George Atkinson III
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesGeorge Atkinson III's speed could make him a valuable special teams asset in the NFL.
But while his twin, Josh, gears up for summer workouts before his final season as a cornerback with the Irish, George has been completing final preparations for this weekend's NFL draft, an event that came a year earlier than expected after an unceremonious end to his collegiate career.

Atkinson said that the physical part of February's NFL combine was the easy part when compared to all of the questions he received from executives wanting to know where things went south for him at Notre Dame, as coach Brian Kelly suspended him from the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for an unspecified violation of team rules. (Atkinson had tweeted, and deleted, that he was suspended for texting during a team meal, something he said he had done all season.)

"Of course the bowl game got brought up, why was I suspended, why am I leaving early, typical questions for people leaving early," Atkinson said of questions executives asked him. "But I just handled it how I'd handle it if anybody else asked me the question: Just stayed true to myself and true to the situation and took responsibility for my actions, and that's the basics my dad raised me on."

Atkinson's dad, former Oakland Raiders defensive back and current broadcaster George Atkinson, has been an invaluable resource during this time, with the son living back at home in the Bay Area this spring while training at California Strength in San Ramon.

"It's definitely a blessing, but then again when [my father] came out I don't think they even had the combine," Atkinson quipped about an event that started in 1982, three years after his father's final year in the NFL. "But he's been in the league for many years, so he knows what to expect. It's kind of like boot camp, [with him] making sure my bed's made and everything just to make sure I'm staying disciplined and things like that, what it takes to be successful at the next level. But it's been a blessing to have him guiding me throughout his whole situation."

Ironically enough, Atkinson says his mom pushed him and his brother toward football when they were growing up more than his father did. His career at Notre Dame got off to a roaring start, with the part-time track star returning a pair of kickoffs for touchdowns during his freshman season in 2011. From there, the man with 4.48 speed had an uneven next two years, showing flashes of promise as the third-string running back during the Irish's 12-1 2012 campaign (361 yards, three touchdowns) before stagnating when given the No. 1 role (555 yards, three touchdowns in 2013).

Still, the 6-foot-1, 218-pound speedster's big-play capability, especially on special teams, gives him a chance to be a late-round pick, and he insists he has no regrets on his time spent in South Bend.

"It was definitely a good experience, for sure. I don't take it for granted at all," Atkinson said. "I don't regret going there. I loved my three years there -- my teammates and my brother and the coaching staff and all that. It's definitely something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life. I was really grateful for the opportunity that I had there, and I'm planning on finishing my degree in the near future for sure, so it was a great time."

Notre Dame pro day notes

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Fourteen former Notre Dame players were back on campus Thursday for pro day, with many doing drills in front of executives from all 32 NFL teams and two head coaches, Mike Tomlin (Steelers) and Gus Bradley (Jaguars).

Here are a handful of notes from the event, courtesy of the Irish's sports information department:
  • Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox and Kona Schwenke were the only players to take part in every drill, with Tommy Rees and Chris Watt skipping only the bench press. TJ Jones, Zack Martin and Prince Shembo only did position drills, with Shembo working with both defensive linemen and linebackers.
  • Bennett Jackson, who ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at last month's NFL combine, improved that mark to 4.40 Thursday. The only cornerbacks to top that at the combine were Justin Gilbert (4.37, Oklahoma State), Phillip Gaines (4.38, Rice), Jason Verrett (4.38, TCU) and Bradley Roby (4.39, Ohio State).
  • Fox, who was not invited to the combine, ran a 4.59 40, which, among linebackers, would have trailed only Boston College's Kevin Pierre-Louis (4.51) and Florida State's Telvin Smith (4.52) at the combine.
  • Rees, who also was not invited to the combine, had a vertical leap of 31 inches, which would have topped fellow quarterbacks Tajh Boyd (30.5, Clemson), Jimmy Garoppolo (30.5, Eastern Illinois), Teddy Bridgewater (30, Louisville), Stephen Morris (30, Miami) and Jordan Lynch (29.5, Northern Illinois). Rees completed 32 of 34 passes Thursday.
  • Louis Nix improved his 40 time from 5.42 at the combine to 5.36 Thursday. He improved his three-cone drill time from 8.29 to 7.94.
  • Watt, whose PCL tear kept him from all but the bench at the combine, ran a 5.39 40 on Thursday, in addition to a 4.76 20-yard shuttle and 7.60 three-cone drill. He did a 28.5-inch vertical and 8-foot, 8-inch broad jump.
  • Schwenke, also not invited to the combine, ran 4.88 40, 4.59 20-yard shuttle, 7.16 three-cone drill, did 29 inches on the vertical leap, nine feet on the broad jump and 27 reps on the bench,
  • George Atkinson III improved his 20-yard shuttle from 4.46 at the combine to 4.38 Thursday.
  • Calabrese, another combine snub, ran a 4.86 40, 4.60 20-yard shuttle, 7.10 three-cone drill, did a 30-inch vertical, jumped 9-feet, 2-inches on the broad jump and did 25 reps on the bench.
Sixteen former Notre Dame players will take part in Thursday's NFL Pro Day at the Loftus Sports Center, the school announced Monday.

Though each's exact participation has yet to be determined, the names scheduled to be in attendance this week are George Atkinson III, Carlo Calabrese, Dan Fox, Mike Golic Jr., Bennett Jackson, TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Troy Niklas, Louis Nix III, Tommy Rees, Kona Schwenke, Prince Shembo, Nick Tausch, Stephon Tuitt, Robby Toma and Chris Watt.

Golic and Toma both finished their Irish careers during the 2012 season.

One player from that list who won't be participating in any drills is Tuitt, who told ESPN.com in a text message that he already completed such drills during his Feb. 28 pro day at Lovett (Ga.) High. Tuitt had surgery earlier this month to repair a stress fracture in his left foot that was discovered during the NFL scouting combine.

Testing and position-specific drills Thursday start around 11:45 a.m. ET.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The light is not just clicking on for Cam McDaniel because he's entering his senior season. No, the way the Notre Dame fan favorite sees it, those seeds have been planted for three years running now, and not just with him assuming the role of elder statesman in a crowded Irish backfield.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesNotre Dame senior tailback Cam McDaniel, who rushed for 705 yards and three touchdowns in 2013, has big goals for next season.
"To be completely honest, I have had to have that before, and leadership doesn't start when you're a senior, it starts when you're a freshman," McDaniel said. "It starts with the ability to recognize, 'Hey,' and even like the ability to jump in and follow when you need to follow and observe like, who's doing what right and who's doing what wrong, and how you can compound and build off of that going into the next year.

"And so to just I guess jump into a leadership role isn't really possible -- you've got to have the tangibles of being a leader, and I feel like that's something that I carry. And for me leadership is natural. It's stepping into a position to be a standard-bearer for the team."

While that quote is sure to tug at the heartstrings of Notre Dame Nation, McDaniel is eager to push forward a ground game that he feels could be as complete as any in the nation, as a backfield that was uneven at times in 2013 returns everyone but George Atkinson III (draft defection) and welcomes back a mobile signal-caller in Everett Golson, who rushed for 298 yards and six touchdowns in 2012.

As for his goals this season, McDaniel, the team's leading returning rusher (705 yards in 2013), delivered another gem.

"Winning a national championship, that's the end goal for this team," the Coppell, Texas, native said. "And [with] the talent that we have, I feel like we're very capable of doing that. That's our team goal, and if anybody else says anything otherwise then they shouldn't be here."

Coming just within the vicinity of that goal will likely depend in large part on the development of the sophomores behind McDaniel: Tarean Folston (470 yards) and Greg Bryant (14), a pair of former ESPN four-star prospects from Florida.

Coach Brian Kelly likes the bruising mentality of Bryant, who's looking to put behind a forgettable rookie campaign that was plagued by injury. But the fifth-year coach knows he'll need more than a single major backfield contributor this season if the Irish want to return to 2012 form.

"I think he's probably what we've always thought about him -- his workouts, top of the line in everything that he does," Kelly said of Bryant. "I know our guys don't like to tackle him. He's physical. He's got all the tools to be a premier running back, and so you add him to the mix with Cam and Tarean, we feel really fortunate to have three great running backs."

Position battles to watch: No. 2

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Our series looking at the top position battles this spring turns its attention to the backfield.

Running backs

[+] EnlargeCam McDaniel
AP Photo/Michael ConroyCam McDaniel was a surprising leading rusher for Notre Dame in 2013.
George Atkinson III is off to try his hand at the NFL after a sub-par junior campaign in which he entered the season as the top option before falling out of favor with the coaching staff, which suspended him for the for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.

Atkinson was second on the team in carries (93) and rushing yards (555), adding three touchdowns. Notre Dame as a whole had a down year running the ball, checking in at No. 80 nationally, at 151 yards per game. But as KC Joyner mentioned a few weeks ago, the running backs might have been better than advertised, as they avoided losses and return some experienced blockers up front. Having a mobile quarterback in the backfield will only help bolster the running attack, too.

The leading returning back is the surprising Cam McDaniel, who enters his senior year coming off a 2013 campaign that saw him tally 705 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 152 carries. Notre Dame knows what it has in McDaniel, a valuable piece to have in this relatively young backfield moving forward.

The biggest guys to keep an eye on this spring, however, are Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. The four-star prospects came in with plenty of hype last season but only one really delivered on it, with Folston going for 470 yards and three touchdowns on 88 carries. The bulk of his production came late in the season, as he earned a heavier workload and carried the ball 11 or more times for 47 or more yards in five of the Irish's final six games.

Bryant, meanwhile, carried the ball just three times for 14 yards in three games and he was shut down for the season because of tendinitis, likely earning a medical redshirt. He is back at full health and practiced with the team late in the season, though, leaving many to wonder if he can begin to show glimpses of the potential he flashed in high school and help further the Irish ground game.

Let's not forget about Amir Carlisle, either, as the USC transfer played in every game and tallied 204 rushing yards on 47 carries. All of the backs need to become better pass-catchers to help open things up for the offense, and while none of these players lack for experience, the potential they show moving forward makes for an intriguing battle to watch unfold this spring.
Nine former Notre Dame players were invited to the NFL scouting combine, including all three players who declared for the draft early.

TJ Jones, Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Louis Nix, Prince Shembo and Bennett Jackson will be in Indianapolis for the Feb. 22-25 event, along with underclassmen George Atkinson III, Troy Niklas and Stephon Tuitt.

Notable former Irish players to be left off the list are Tommy Rees and Carlo Calabrese, along with Dan Fox, who spoke of the snub to CSNChicago earlier in the week, saying he plans to use it as motivation.

It will be interesting to see how a number of these players fare, and if they can seriously affect their stock either way. We all remember Manti Te'o's 40-time being a source of much questioning last year.

The intrigue this year will likely be among the early departures. Tuitt will more than likely be the first of the trio drafted, but he has already seen his name fall out of the first round of Mel Kiper Jr.'s mock draft. The jumps by Niklas and Atkinson were more surprising, but given the former's strength and the latter's speed, they could turn out to be combine stars.

Kelly, Irish get class they need

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Brian Kelly spoke like Brian Kelly for much of his Wednesday press conference, touting the distinctions of his program by stressing 40-year life decisions (not four) and by mentioning the different (though not necessarily better) shopping aisle that is Notre Dame football.

For the first time in what felt like a long time, the fifth-year Irish coach enjoyed a relatively drama-free signing day. His 22 verbal commitments going into the day all delivered on their word without any extracurriculars, and he even added an early-morning surprise from four-star defensive tackle Daniel Cage, giving the Irish their second win over Michigan State since September and further beefing up a class that finished with more linemen (12) than every other position combined (11).

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
Kelley L Cox/USA TODAY SportsThis may not have been Notre Dame's highest-ranked recruiting class, but fifth-year coach Brian Kelly has developed a recruiting identity for the Irish.
But Kelly hit on another theme rather decisively early on, one that struck his program fairly hard in the weeks following last season's 9-4 campaign: the pros, and where they fit into the plans of his program.

"When we were having this opportunity to recruit a young man, they had to have a passion for wanting to get a degree from Notre Dame and winning a national championship," he said. "If they want to come here just to hang their hat to play football and go to the NFL, we passed on some pretty good players because I don't want guys to come here and not finish their degree. I want guys to come to Notre Dame, get their degree, help us win a national championship and be the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft. That's what I want, if that's what they want."

No, this is likely not a coincidence in light of the early NFL departures of Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, the first Irish underclassmen in the Kelly era to leave school without their degrees since Kyle Rudolph back in Year 1. And this does not exactly vibe smoothly with the program's "Pot of Gold" initiative that made headlines recently when Notre Dame sent packages to recruits containing 477 letters -- one for every draft pick to come out of Notre Dame.

But Kelly was deliberate from the get-go. He was cocksure. His was a seasoned voice speaking after four years at one place, having weathered the sleeplessness that accompanies a national title game appearance, four underclassman departures, and a number of defections and suspensions in what is quickly turning into a long Irish tenure.

And on a day when positivity and hyperbole reigned across the college football world, Kelly allowed for some genuine self-evaluation. He said he had to do a better job of educating his players on the NFL. He conceded that he had not initially cast a wide enough net when evaluating prospects on the defensive line, the unit that took the biggest hit after the 2013 season. He might have cut the sales job short for the sake of simply coaching his football team, comfortable and confident in what he wants and what it takes to win big at Notre Dame.

This Irish recruiting class, ranked 11th by ESPN RecruitingNation, is not his best. It's not nearly as good as last year's, which was ranked fourth before losing a top-10 player in the country. Nor is it as good as consecutive ninth-ranked classes in 2012 and 2011, which ended up seeing five of its top players move on to different schools.

The ranking mattered little to Kelly or his staff. They had already taken their third Irish team to a perfect regular season two years ago with somewhat of a hodgepodge cast of characters still finding their way on their respective sides of the ball. They likely believe that, if not for a gross academic oversight by Everett Golson, they could have been bound for potentially bigger and better things this past fall.

So what if this year's haul lacks a five-star phenom. So what if it features eight three-star prospects.

"I just was a little bit too narrow-focused on where we were with our defensive line, and I needed to just be a little bit more -- I needed to change my view of how we recruited defensive linemen and open it up a little bit more," Kelly said. "It was strictly a decision that I needed to make. We did it a little late, and we were fortunate that we were able to get two very quality defensive linemen late in the cycle here, but we've made that adjustment in our profile."

The adjustment paid dividends through the signing day fax from Cage and through a trio of three-star newcomers who committed in the previous three months: Jhonathon Williams (November), Kolin Hill (December) and Peter Mokwuah (January).

These were hardly highly sought-after prospects, at least by Notre Dame's usual standards. There probably isn't a Tuitt walking through that door. But Kelly has learned better than to allow a departure like that one change a season's outlook, showing enough faith in his player-development process -- and in an oh-so-close-to-being-filled roster, now at 84 scholarships -- to secure a foundation for years to come.

"I think if you really boil it down, it's about the front seven and the offensive line," he said. "Yeah, there's some great skill players that I'll talk about, but you're winning up front, and building that depth in the front seven and the offensive line really stands out in this class, and then having some really good players across the board for us."

If that's not going to jump out on brochures, so be it. Notre Dame has an identity, and its leaders show enough resolve to push the envelope with a class that's smaller in stars but tailored in fit.
We are one day away from national signing day, an occasion packed with promise. As we noticed last week when looking at the Ultimate 300, some prospects meet their potential better than others.

Recruiting is an inexact science, as projects such as the Ultimate 300 reveal, and as many rosters filled with blue-chip prospects show, too.

[+] EnlargeJaylon Smith
AP Photo/Scott BoehmJaylon Smith was the only five-star recruit among Notre Dame's starters last season.
Look no further than Notre Dame, which currently has Recruiting Nation's No. 11 overall haul for the Class of 2014, down from No. 4 last season. The Irish were No. 9 in 2012, No. 9 in 2011, No. 21 in 2010 and No. 14 in 2009.

The 2009-13 classes made up the 2013 Notre Dame roster. So, using Recruiting Nation's rankings, we will take a look back at this past season's (general) starters to see where they stood as recruits.

The numbers? Notre Dame had one five-star recruit, six four-star recruits, 11 three-star recruits and one two-star recruit.

(Note: ESPN did not use the star system until 2010.)

Offense

  • QB Tommy Rees, Lake Forest (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 19 QB, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • RB: George Atkinson III, Granada (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 40 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • WR: TJ Jones, Gainesville (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: DaVaris Daniels, Vernon Hills (Ill.) High: Four stars, No. 65 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • WR: Chris Brown, Hanahan (S.C.) High: Three stars, No. 66 WR, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 78
  • TE: Troy Niklas, Servite (Calif.) High: Three stars, No. 19 TE, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79
  • T: Zack Martin, Indianapolis Bishop Chatard High: No. 109 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 81
  • T: Ronnie Stanley, Las Vegas Bishop Gorman High: Four stars, No. 34 OT, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • G: Chris Watt, Glenbard West (Ill.) High: No. 68 overall prospect, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 82
  • G: Christian Lombard, Williams Fremd (Ill.) High: Three stars, No. 20 OT, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 79
  • C: Nick Martin, Bishop Chatard (Ind.) High: Three stars, No. 39 OT, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 78
Defense

  • DE: Stephon Tuitt, Monroe (Ga.) High: Four stars, No. 90 overall prospect, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 81
  • DE: Sheldon Day, Indianapolis Warren Central High: Four stars, No. 143 overall prospect, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 80
  • NG: Louis Nix, Jacksonville (Fla.) Raines High: Four stars, No. 64 overall prospect, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 81
  • LB: Prince Shembo, Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell High: Three stars, No. 47 DE, Class of 2010, Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Dan Fox, Cleveland St. Ignatius High: No. 76 OLB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 76
  • LB: Carlo Calabrese, Verona (N.J.) High: No. 12 ILB, Class of 2009. Scout grade: 78
  • LB: Jaylon Smith, Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers High: Five stars, No. 7 overall prospect, Class of 2013. Scout grade: 90
  • CB: Bennett Jackson, Hazlet (N.J.) Raritan High: Three stars, No. 97 WR, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 77
  • CB: KeiVarae Russell, Everett (Wash.) Mariner High: Three stars, No. 28 RB, Class of 2012. Scout grade: 79
  • S: Matthias Farley, Charlotte Christian (N.C.) High: Three stars, No. 92 ATH, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 77
  • S: Austin Collinsworth, Highlands (Ky.) High: Two stars, No. 121 S, Class of 2010. Scout grade: 74
Special Teams

  • K/P: Kyle Brindza, Plymouth (Mich.) High: Three stars, No. 6 K, Class of 2011. Scout grade: 79

Poll: Who will be drafted highest?

January, 28, 2014
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Zack Martin's recent surge throughout Senior Bowl week and his rise up draft analysts' rankings make it a very real possibility that he could be the first former Notre Dame player to hear his name called on Night 1 of the NFL draft. Obviously, there is plenty of time for movements to happen and stocks to rise and fall (the combine, pro days, etc.), but this early in the stage, we are wondering who you think will go highest.

SportsNation

Which former Notre Dame player will be drafted highest?

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    39%
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    21%
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    40%
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    0%

Discuss (Total votes: 1,281)

Zack Martin, LT: The two-time Notre Dame captain capped his career by winning MVP honors in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl. The 6-foot-4, 308-pounder could play guard at the next level, and he set the Irish career starts record by starting 52 straight games from his second through fifth seasons.

Louis Nix III, NG: The 6-2, 342-pound interior lineman is a run-stuffer who often commands double-teams. His combination of size and quickness is rare at all levels, making him a precious commodity among NFL franchises. It is worth wondering whether his injury-plagued (meniscus surgery) final campaign in South Bend, Ind., coupled with his early signing with an agent before telling the staff -- and therefore forfeiting his final game, which he was out for anyway -- hurts him in the eyes of pro front offices.

Stephon Tuitt, DE: Another giant defensive lineman who was plagued by injuries his final year, though he overcame them to become Notre Dame's best defensive lineman by season's end. The 6-6, 312-pounder entered camp overweight after recovering from offseason sports hernia surgery, then dealt with a back issue. Still, he managed to start all 13 games and record a team-best 7.5 sacks and nine tackles for loss, while forcing a fumble and adding a pick-six. His 21.5 career sacks are second-most in program history, and we all know how coveted explosive pass-rushers are at the next level. The fact Tuitt didn't play football until high school suggests plenty of the infamous "upside" that so often seems to make scouts salivate as well.

Other: Tight end Troy Niklas leads this category, as the 6-6, 270-pounder also possesses plenty of upside after catching passes for just two years while at Notre Dame after switching from linebacker. Don't be surprised if he ends up becoming a combine superstar. He is nicknamed ‘Hercules’ for a reason, after all. The other early departure is running back/kick returner George Atkinson III, who was probably the fastest player on the team during his time at Notre Dame. Seniors to consider are receiver TJ Jones, cornerback Bennett Jackson, left guard Chris Watt, linebackers Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox and quarterback Tommy Rees as well.
For three years, Brian Kelly had success like few others in recruiting players back to school. Sure, Kyle Rudolph left after Year 1 of the Kelly era, but since then the Notre Dame coach had successfully gotten Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin to come back to the Irish for their fourth (and, in Martin's case, fifth) seasons of college ball.

That changed drastically this season. With several highly projected underclassmen on their roster, the Irish figured to say goodbye to one or two underclassmen early. And even when Kelly said in late December that he had submitted paperwork to the NFL advisory board for Stephon Tuitt, Troy Niklas and George Atkinson III, few expected all three to leave school early.

Then January came along, and within one week's span, all three players declared for the draft, choosing to avoid the recent trend and skip their final seasons. Each had his reasons, so here's a look at the trio and a look at who on the Irish roster will be tasked with filling the big shoes in 2014.

(Worth noting: Nix, who had a fifth season of eligibility available to him in 2014, is not included in this group, because he graduated in December.)

Leaving: Stephon Tuitt
Replacement: Isaac Rochell
The outlook: It is worth noting that Justin Utupo will return for a fifth year and that veterans Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) and Chase Hounshell (shoulder) are expected to be back at full health next fall after both missed the 2013 season. Together, all will be counted on to replace the production of Tuitt, who was one of the best pass-rushers in school history. Still, if the Irish are looking for a youngster to step up, they will turn to Rochell, who ended up seeing much more playing time as a true freshman than initially expected this past fall, given the injury bug that affected the Irish in the trenches. ESPN's No. 139 overall player from the class of 2013 played in 11 games, recording 10 total tackles. The 6-foot-3.5, 280-pounder is a far cry from the 6-foot-6.5, 312-pound Tuitt physically, but most typically are. The bottom line is Tuitt will be the hardest of Notre Dame's early departures to replace, but Rochell will probably see his role increase the most in his sophomore season. Junior Sheldon Day, entering his second year as a starter, will be counted on even more this coming fall as well.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesCam McDaniel (33) led the Irish with 705 rushing yards in 2013.
Leaving: George Atkinson III
Replacement: Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, Greg Bryant
The outlook: Atkinson should be the easiest of the early departures to replace, as his playing time and production took a big dip late during this past season. He was ultimately suspended for the New Era Pinstripe Bowl for what Kelly called a violation of team rules, a violation that Atkinson later tweeted (and then deleted) consisted of him texting during a team meal. Still, the Irish have the always-reliable McDaniel back for another year, and the Coppell, Texas, native actually had more carries (152-93) and rushing yards (742-583) than Atkinson in 2013 while helping with kick-return duties as well. The most important developments to keep an eye on, though, are those of Folston and Bryant, both of whom came to Notre Dame as highly touted four-star backs expected to deliver immediate boosts. Bryant had trouble gaining playing time early and ultimately suffered a knee injury that forced him to take a medical redshirt, but Folston came on strong late in the season, finishing with 88 carries for 470 yards and three touchdowns. Things will be tougher next season with a rebuilt offensive line, and all of these backs need to improve as pass-catchers, but there remains plenty of promise in the fold. Let's not rule out redshirt junior Amir Carlisle, either.

Leaving: Troy Niklas
Replacement: Ben Koyack
The outlook: Niklas, who began his career at linebacker, played tight end at Notre Dame for just two years, coming on this past fall after the departure of Eifert, as he hauled in 32 passes for 498 yards and five touchdowns. He was improving as a blocker and was on track to become one of the best tight ends in the country next season. Now Koyack will be tasked with a bigger workload in his senior season. He, too, came on strong late last season, finishing with 10 catches for 171 yards and three touchdowns, though he often played in two-tight-end sets with Niklas and gave the Irish plenty of offensive flexibility.
At first it looked like 2013 was the curse. Now? It may just be the month of January.

Rip the page out of your calendar and throw it in the dumpster. Never speak of it again in or around South Bend, Ind. The month has been beyond bad to Notre Dame the last two years, and the worst part is that three more weeks remain between now and February.

From the Alabama beatdown to the Brian Kelly/NFL flirtation, from the Manti Te'o fiasco to all of the craziness that followed in the ensuing weeks, last January was one to forget for the Irish. Now comes a trio of underclassmen departures, plus a fresh academic issue surrounding the Irish's top returning receiver, who will miss spring ball.

To be clear, early defections to the NFL happen regularly around big-time programs. And the odds of a talent like Stephon Tuitt returning for one more year always seemed slim to none anyway. The writing was on the wall with George Atkinson III, while the Troy Niklas news was the biggest surprise, mostly because Brian Kelly had a remarkable track record at Notre Dame of re-recruiting players to get their degrees -- Michael Floyd, Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Louis Nix and Zack Martin among them. (Kyle Rudolph, after Year 1 with Kelly, was the only early departure until this offseason.)

Still, throw the three announcements within a five-day span -- during the first official week of the college football offseason, no less -- and it is easy to understand the fan base freakout. Add in DaVaris Daniels' school suspension this spring for an academic issue, and this is really a lot to digest at once.

Daniels is the biggest surprise, though the redshirt sophomore did his best to quell everyone's worst fears by tweeting that he is not joining the early departures in the pros. Still, for a talented wideout whom Kelly always said needed to work on the little things, missing spring ball will hurt.

Especially as he was set to enter as the Irish's leading returning receiver. Especially as there is now no Niklas to fill the void. Especially as QB Everett Golson returns, two seasons after he developed a quick, reliable connection when the two were redshirt freshmen in 2012.

For now, Notre Dame must hope the early wave of harsh news is the only rush between now and national signing day. Kelly, one of last year's mysteries at this time, has no NFL contact that anyone currently knows about. Golson, the biggest headliner of a bad 2013, is already set to return to classes this month after his fall exile.

New coordinators will come -- eventually, we think -- and new players will follow next month.

Until then, as most Irish fans have come to expect in the depths of winter, bundle up. Just don't hibernate, because things should turn around soon.

At this point, they have to, don't they?

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