Imagine it is April 28, 2015. A little more than four months until the season-opener in Notre Dame Stadium against the Texas Longhorns and a full year before the 2016 NFL draft.
Ben Koyack is Notre Dame’s only prospect in the NFL draft.
At that very moment, who would we have been considered to be Notre Dame’s top draft prospects in the spring of 2016?
Certainly offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, who had a chance to leave right then and there, but chose to return to Notre Dame for his fourth year/senior season in ’15.
While Irish fans could hope that linebacker Jaylon Smith would return for his senior season in 2016, it would be no surprise after a standout junior campaign if entered his name in the draft. Clearly, he’d be a first-round pick.
Sheldon Day, although a bit undersized at the defensive tackle position, certainly would rank among the top interior defensive linemen with his cat-quick reactions off the snap of the football.
Cornerback KeiVarae Russell missed the 2014 season due to suspension, and although he likely would have another year of eligibility in 2016, there was a good chance that Russell would develop into a lock-down cornerback in ’15 and enter his name in the draft.
Wide receiver Will Fuller had a spectacular sophomore season, but few gave much thought to him leaving after his junior year in 2015.
Quarterback Everett Golson, after throwing for nearly 3,500 yards and 29 touchdowns in ‘14, would put up even better numbers in ’15. Surely, that would help him overcome his shortcomings in size and stature for the NFL game.
Center Nick Martin? Probably a mid-round choice. Chris Brown? Probably a free agent. Romeo Okwara? Free agent. C.J. Prosise? Certainly he’d return for his fifth year with just one season in the program as a running back behind Tarean Folston.
Elijah Shumate, Amir Carlisle, Matthias Farley, Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace were all thought to be free-agent candidates.
Well, here we are one year later and now this is what we think heading into the April 28-30 draft:
• Stanley is projected where we expected him to be projected – first round.
• Smith suffered the cruel blow of a serious knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl. He’ll get drafted, but likely would have been in the top five overall if not the No. 1 selection.
• Fuller was too good to keep in college another year. Now he’s one of the four best receivers in the draft.
• Martin is the second best center in the draft.
• Prosise is one of the top five running backs in the draft.
• Day is in a logjam with a ton of interior defensive linemen, but is still a coveted prospect.
• Russell didn’t prove himself as a lock-down corner and suffered an injury, but he’s worked his way back up the board by testing extremely well at Notre Dame’s Pro Day.
• Shortly after the NFL draft, Golson would announce his intentions of leaving Notre Dame and playing his fifth year at Florida State.
• Brown and Okwara maximized their all-star/combine/Pro Day opportunities to become legitimate late-round draft choices.
• Shumate, Carlisle, Farley and Grace remain free-agent hopefuls; Schmidt has moved on from football.
Now comes the next layer of the process. Draft weekend – April 28-30 – which will sort out the reality from the projections and expectations.
So as we anticipate the start of the 2016 NFL draft Thursday night, who are Notre Dame’s top draft candidates for 2017? The perception likely will be a whole lot different a year from now. But here’s a look at Notre Dame’s potential draft candidates for next year, including players with eligibility remaining after the ’16 season.
• OG-Quenton Nelson – The blocking behemoth will have two years of eligibility after the 2016 season. Probably the most Irish fans can hope for is Nelson in a Notre Dame uniform in ’17. This guy has all the tools to play in the NFL at a high level for a long time.
• DE-Isaac Rochell – NFL teams are going to like his strength at the point of attack, his versatility along the defensive line and his rock-steady personality. If he adds a little pass rush in ’16, he could be a solid second-day selection.
• OT-Mike McGlinchey – McGlinchey is entering just his second year as a starter, he’s moving from right to left tackle, and he has a year of eligibility in ’17. He’s also 6-foot-7 ½, 310 pounds and is an athlete on the edge. Most Harry Hiestand products use all of their eligibility. McGlinchey likely will, too, but he should be very attractive to the NFL a year from now.
• QB-DeShone Kizer – This could be a bit premature with two years of eligibility after the 2016 season. But Kizer’s maturity and natural progression should allow him to build upon last year’s 2,884 yards passing, 63.0-completion percentage, and 21-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio. He’s built like an NFL quarterback, he can run, and he has a great head on his shoulders.
• Torii Hunter Jr. – He’s only caught 35 passes for 428 yards and three touchdowns in his career. It wasn’t that long ago that he was in the midst of a two-year process of bouncing back from a broken leg. But he flashed star power this spring, and most expect him to become Notre Dame’s clear go-to guy. His hands will not be questioned. Hunter has a fifth year of eligibility in ’17.
• CB-Cole Luke – If Luke would have had a junior year comparable to his sophomore season, we’d be talking about the 10th Notre Dame candidate to be drafted this weekend, although his speed times might have worked against him in combine/Pro Day scenarios. Big year, big opportunity to prove himself in ’16.
• RB-Tarean Folston – Sources told Irish Illustrated that Folston toyed with the idea of rehabbing his knee injury and entering the draft this year. That probably wouldn’t have worked out well for Folston, and now he has one or two seasons to prepare himself for the next level. Folston has much to prove, minus the size and breakaway speed of a Prosise.
• NT-Jarron Jones – Jones is going to be scrutinized for his a) past injuries and b) inconsistency. His reputation is that of a questionable worker. That being said, have you seen this guy up close? He’s as big as a mountain, and for what he lacks in side-to-side mobility and pass rush, he compensates with natural strength and point-of-attack stability.
• OLB-James Onwualu – Uncertain how long an undersized linebacker like Onwualu can exist in the NFL. But he’ll get glowing reports from Brian VanGorder for his intelligence, coachability and team-first approach. If he can turn in a solid senior season, there’s a spot on the NFL practice field – at least for a little bit as a free agent – with special teams opportunities mixed in.
• S-Max Redfield – He passes the eye test when he walks in the door, but the film gives him away. That being said, he has a golden opportunity to win the free safety job, lead the secondary from the back end, and rejuvenate his career. The physical tools are in place. He has to prove he has NFL football instincts.
• P-Tyler Newsome – A punter leaving after his third year? It’s a rare day when something like that happens. But if Newsome duplicates his 44.5-yard average from his first year of collegiate competition, he’ll open some eyes on the next level.
• QB-Malik Zaire – If the season unfolds the way we think it will, Zaire will need a fifth year of college to prove himself as a worthy candidate for the NFL. That could be at Notre Dame; it could be somewhere else. Zaire is an NFL-level athlete who likely will have to consider another position if he wants to play on Sundays.