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Irish at Indy Combine (defense)

With two of Notre Dame’s five prospects bouncing back from injuries, the impact by the Irish at the combine on the defensive side of the ball was limited.

LB-JAYLON SMITH (6-2, 223)
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It was an uncomfortable combine for the Irish standout, who suffered a torn ACL/LCL on Jan. 1 and could do little more than answer questions about the long-term recovery of an injury that occurred eight weeks earlier and offers no definitive answers at the present time.

A few NFL teams failed Smith on his physical and the term “nerve damage” was thrown around by a lot of people who a) don’t know what that means and b) don’t know if Smith actually suffered nerve damage.

As usual, Smith was a congenial, pleasant guest of the media, and while he played a bit of dodge ball with questions pertaining to nerve damage – saying there wasn’t nerve damage and then later saying the nerve was healing – the real test comes in April when he returns to Indianapolis for a medical re-check.

Until then, the projections likely will remain grim. NFL Media draft evaluator Mike Mayock said he talked to “at least five different teams” that said the injury is “bad,” which has prompted comparisons to the devastating knee injury suffered by former South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, which derailed him from what looked like a very promising NFL career.

Smith has a $5 million loss-of-value insurance policy that would pay him $700,000 if he falls out of the first round and an additional $100,000 for every draft pick he slides thereafter.

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DT-SHELDON DAY (6-1, 293)
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The whole “a poor man’s Aaron Donald” line has been a bit overused and the combine showed why. When Day clocked a 5.07 time in the 40, it certainly was more than respectable for a interior defensive lineman, but not in the same ball park as Donald’s 4.68 a couple years back.

That’s not to say that Day shouldn’t be chosen within the first two or three rounds or that he won’t have a long and productive career on the next level. He’s just not the freak Donald was/is, although Day’s 1.69 time in the 10-yard dash upheld what we saw with our own eyes, particularly the last two seasons in an Irish uniform.

Day is a gap-creaser and playmaker with a motor that never, ever quits.

Day showed well in the agility drills (20-yard shuttle, 3-cone drill, vertical), but didn’t perform nearly as well in the bench press (21 reps of 225 pounds), which was a bit surprising.

Ironically, Day may not be the best defensive tackle prospect in the ’16 draft named Sheldon. Sheldon Rankins from Louisville tested better than Day during the combine. He is a bit more stout than Day, but Day’s body of work remains very solid, and there’s every reason to believe he’ll show well at Notre Dame’s March 31 Pro Day.

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With an extra five weeks to prepare for Notre Dame’s Pro Day, the combine came a bit too early for Russell, who suffered a fractured tibia in the 11th game of the season against Boston College that required surgery to insert a pin.

Brian Kelly originally surmised that Russell would have enough time to return to action against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl, but that timetable proved a bit too tight.

Could Russell have tested in Indianapolis? Probably, but for a slightly-better-than borderline NFL player to begin with, his margin for error is fairly tight. He needs to be at his best when he finally does cut it loose, and that extra five weeks between the combine and Notre Dame’s Pro Day can only help him.

Russell said at the combine that he played with a stress fracture during the ’16 season, which is a revelation that some athletes aren’t willing to divulge. Perhaps it was his way of offering an explanation for a ’15 season that failed to match expectations.

The outspoken Russell has five weeks to put himself in position to back up his claims throughout the 2015 season that he is among the nation’s elite cornerbacks. His speed times – which are thought to be relatively pedestrian when he’s fully healthy – will determine his draft fate. If they don’t, his press coverage work in someone’s camp this summer will.

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It’s rather amazing – and a byproduct of the system – that Okwara’s stock has risen like it has since the middle of the 2015 season. Five games into his final season with the Irish, Okwara had one sack and four in his career.

Eight games later, he finished his senior campaign with eight sacks and entered the East-West Shrine game with a cleaned-up if not a clean slate. When Okwara measured just under 6-foot-5 with 34 1/2-inch arms and 10 1/8-inch hands – still at the age of 20 – some eyes were opened.

Okwara certainly did not hurt himself at the combine, although his 4.90 time in the 40 didn’t seem to fit with some of his other timing tests, such as his 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill. His 23 reps in the bench press was a good number for a 265-pound defensive end.

For those who watched him over the course of four seasons, it’s fairly surprising that his stock has gone up to the degree that it has. Okwara struggled with productivity most of his collegiate career and did the bulk of his damage against some of the worst pass-protection offenses in the country in the second half of the ’15 season.

But there’s no denying that Okwara has turned some heads and given himself a chance for the start of a career in the NFL.

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The fact that Shumate clocked the sixth fastest time in the 40 among safeties (4.58) probably says a bit more about the safety crop than Shumate, although at 216 pounds, he was among the largest of the safeties outside of Clemson’s Jayron Kearse (6-4, 216). The 18 reps in the bench press is a solid number, but the 33-inch didn’t exceed most of the strong safety prospects.

Shumate’s main impediment to the NFL is his body of work at Notre Dame. While he came on strong as a senior, it was a relative strong. In comparison to where he was before his final season, he was vastly improved, which was more of a reflection of his wildly inconsistent first three years than a breakout ’15.

Shumate’s calling card to the next level is to add size to his frame and compete for a nickel linebacker position. He’s a longshot and won’t get drafted, but he’s in the midst of a niche addition to the NFL and he needs to strike while the iron is hot. He almost undoubtedly won’t get drafted, but someone should invite him to camp to see if he can fill a new hybrid role.

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