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NFL Prospects Limited, Unless . . .

Commensurate with the performance of Notre Dame’s defense, none of the draft eligible Irish prospects on that side of the football project as a first- or second-day draft candidate.

A little less than a year ago, following Notre Dame’s 10-victory season in 2015, the Irish had as many as 10 legitimate NFL prospects once early-entries Will Fuller, Jaylon Smith and C.J. Prosise entered their names into the hopper.

Ultimately, seven Irish players were chosen among the first four rounds of the seven-round NFL selection process, including Ronnie Stanley and Fuller in the first round, Smith and Nick Martin in the second round, and KeiVarae Russell and Prosise in the third round, with Sheldon Day rounding out the group in the fourth.

(Smith undoubtedly would have been Notre Dame’s third first-round pick of the draft had he not suffered a knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl, perhaps even the No. 1 pick overall.)

Early projections this month from long-time Chicago Bears Director of College Scouting and current insider Greg Gabriel indicate that none of the draft eligible seniors/fifth-year seniors at Notre Dame who are out of eligibility after the ’16 season translate to a first-round pick…or a second…or a third.

“There’s nobody on this defense that jumps out at me and says, ‘He’s a top-flight prospect,’” Gabriel said. “Right now, based on how they’ve played to date, I don’t see anybody as a first- or second-day draft choice.”

Candidates include defensive linemen Isaac Rochell and Jarron Jones, linebacker James Onwualu and cornerback Cole Luke.

“When you look at all the players, none of them have played as well as you might have expected them to play (except for Onwualu). They’ve leveled off. The arrow isn’t pointing up with any of these guys.”

The tone will change if true junior quarterback DeShone Kizer and/or red-shirt junior offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey decide to bypass their remaining eligibility after the 2016 season. Kizer has two years of college playing time available to him while McGlinchey has one.

As recently as two weeks ago, McGlinchey made a firm statement that he fully intended to return to the Irish for the 2017 season. Kizer has not commented beyond stating his focus is on the 2016 season.

Other Notre Dame players who could consider leaving after the ’16 season include true junior guard Quenton Nelson, red-shirt junior receiver Torii Hunter, Jr., and red-shirt junior running back Tarean Folston. Nelson has eligibility through the 2018 season while Hunter and Folston have one.

The following is Gabriel’s analysis of Notre Dame’s prospects, starting with the four defensive players whose eligibility with the Irish expires after the ’15 season.

DE-ISAAC ROCHELL (6-3½, 290)
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Gabriel’s Take: “I thought he’d take a step this year, but he hasn’t taken a step. He’s had some flash plays. What they’re doing now better suits his body type and athleticism than what they were doing when (Brian) VanGorder was here. I think he’s a five-technique.

“(But) I wish he was more explosive. He’s a good athlete, not a great athlete. Not a lot of explosiveness to his play, and that’s why he’s not a great pass rusher. Never will be. More of a run-stuffer.”

Draft Prospects: “At this point, mid-round at best.

DT-JARRON JONES (6-5½, 315)
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Gabriel’s Take: “Jarron Jones is not the player he was before his injuries, not that he was a great player before then. I don’t see a lot of fire in his play. He gets tall. Obviously, he’s got some talent. Now that they’ve switched the defense a little bit and he’s playing more of a three-man front and playing on the nose, he’s able to hold the point, but doesn’t make plays consistently.

“When it comes to a player like Jones, the medicals always play an important role as to where he actually gets drafted. They’re going to want to do an MRI and look at these injuries (foot and knee) closely. They’re going to want to know how the healing process was, how strong the joint is, etc. That’s going to play into it.

“I’ve felt all along that he’s more of an offensive lineman than a defensive lineman. When you look at his mannerisms, his body type, his length, he looks like a (offensive) tackle. He’s not a real physically-tough, defensive-minded kid. (Jerry) Tillery is the same way. They’re more offensive lineman types than defensive lineman types. But you’ve got to get some people to play defense and Notre Dame hasn’t recruited as well on the defensive side of the line.”

Draft Prospects: “Right now, he probably gets drafted. The reason I’d hedge is because we don’t know how many underclassmen will be in the draft. The last couple years, it’s been about 100, give or take a couple guys. He might be a free agent if there are 100-plus underclassmen.

“He’s not a full-time player. He’s more free agent than potential draft choice at this point, and it wouldn’t shock me if he ends up on the other side of the ball. If I’m a scout going in there and looking at him all the time, I might be inclined to say he belongs on offense.”

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Gabriel’s Take: “My question is: ‘What is he (position-wise)?’ You’ve got a guy that came in as a receiver. Then he was moved to safety and now he’s been a linebacker. He has tweener size. He’s a good college football player, but what is he at the next level? The stopwatch is going to count heavily on him. 

“You look at Su’a Cravens from USC last year, a hybrid guy. He ran a 4.7 and then he wouldn’t run again. When you get a situation like that, those who can’t run don’t. People thought he’d be a 4.5 guy, but his tape was good enough to overcome that.

“I look at Onwualu as one of these hybrid guys that teams are starting to go with in their base defense. A guy that is half-safety, half-linebacker. I don’t think he’s got great instincts, but he’s got good instincts. He’s a smart kid. Being able to pick it up and playing smart are two different things. You can know what you’re supposed to do, and then you have to react the way you’re supposed to react.”

Draft Prospects: “Half-safety, half-linebacker. That’s how I see his role right now without verified measurables, which will play into it. I don’t see him as an every-down linebacker at the next level. If he’s a linebacker at the next level, I think he’s a Will after playing more of a Sam position at Notre Dame. But he’s not big enough to be a Sam on the next level.

“I’m going to go on the numbers and we don’t have the numbers yet. Right now, I think he’s more of a free agent because he’s a tweener. There have been a few players like him who have been picked very high, but we’ll have to see his measurables. If he runs in the 4.6s, he’s got a chance to be a mid-to-late round guy.”

CB-COLE LUKE (5-11, 195)
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Gabriel’s Take: “He’s played terrible. He’s flashed at times like he did against Stanford. But he’s a guy you thought would be a pretty good player and come on as a senior with a chance to be a No. 2 corner in the league. This year, he’s given up big plays, he’s playing cautious, he’s missing tackles, he hasn’t been a force, and on top of that, he’s looked slow to me.

“A year ago, I thought he had a chance to be…I’m not going to say first-round guy, but a premium guy. So you want to see improvement based on his play last year, and he’s regressed. He hasn’t gotten better.”

Draft Prospects: “It’s a stopwatch position. The stopwatch can tell you where you’re going to be drafted. People want to see traits, instincts, tackling ability and you’ve got to have speed because if you can’t run with the guys in the league, you can’t play.

“In saying that, there are some slow corners playing in the National Football League that are pretty good players, but most of those slow guys are tall guys with great length. They overcome their lack of speed. (Richard) Sherman was a 4.6 guy, but he’s tall (6-foot-3) with length and he’s physical.

“If (Luke) runs good, he’s got a chance to redeem himself.”

QB-DESHONE KIZER (6-4½, 230)
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Gabriel’s Take: “Two weeks ago, Kizer might have been the first pick in the draft. His play has dropped off a little bit. I don’t know if his play has dropped off because of him or because of what the hell they’re doing.

“He’s got more tools than any quarterback in this draft. I know a lot of people in the league that really like the traits. He hasn’t looked good the last couple weeks, but throw out N.C. State because that one doesn’t count.

“I watched Jared Goff throw five interceptions against Utah, and two or three in another game, and he was still the first pick in the draft. (Kizer’s) arm strength…I knew he had a strong arm, but he threw a Hail Mary at the end of the first half against Duke and it was 65 yards in the air, and he didn’t wind up.

Draft Prospects: “The committee is not going to tell you you’re a top 5 pick. It’s a fallacy that they say you’re a top 10. They just tell you if they think you’ll go in the first round. If they don’t give you a second-round grade, they tell you to go back to school. They used to take you all the way to the fourth round.

“It’s on him/his camp to find out if he’s a top five pick. A year ago now, I thought Carson Wentz was a late-first rounder, and he should have been the No. 1 pick in the draft. Part of that is based on intangibles. By draft time, I had him as No. 1, based upon what he did at the combine, his workouts, interviews…But a year ago now, he got hurt in October, broke his arm, and then didn’t play again until their (FCS) championship game.

“Kizer’s total starts will be about the same as Wentz’s, but Wentz was a fifth-year guy. Kizer has some great tools. He can make every throw. He can make plays with his feet. For the most part, he’s pretty good at reading defenses.

“If there’s a negative, he tries to force the issue sometimes by trying to make a play, especially because they’re struggling. When he wasn’t trying to ‘make plays’ early in the season, he looked a lot better.

“But in the NFL, it’s what you can be, not exactly what you are, and Kizer can make throws that no other quarterback in this draft can make.”

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Gabriel’s Take: “He’s a right tackle, not a left tackle. He’s shown improvement since the beginning of the year. Playing a new position, he’s got to get better.

“He’s a mature kid. He’s a tough kid. I think he’s still got to get a little bigger for the NFL game. I think he’s a starting right tackle in the league. Could he go in the first? Yup. Will he go in the first? Let’s see how the rest of the season plays out, but the arrow is going up. He’s gotten better since the beginning of the year. He’s their best prospect…unless Kizer comes out.”

Draft Prospects: “There are people who thought (McGlinchey) was going to be a first-round pick going into the season and that still may be the case.

“Right now, the offensive line class doesn’t look real strong. That doesn’t mean it won’t be, but it doesn’t look real strong. I know he said he’s staying in school, but if he puts his name in and they give him first-round grades, is he going to stay in school?”

WR-TORII HUNTER, JR. (6-0, 195)
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Gabriel’s Take: “Obviously, the injury is going to play into it. Receivers are a dime a dozen. The physicals will come into it. I think he’s a late-round guy based on what he’s done.”

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Gabriel’s Take: “I know guys who think he can be really special. He lost weight and moves around better than he did.

“I still don’t think he’s a great second-level athlete when he’s playing in space. He’s all right. He’s not great. But when you see him come off the ball, when him and McGlinchey get into people, they get movement. He’s a better run-blocker than he is a pass-blocker. He’s not a great athlete, but he’s a good enough athlete.”

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• Gabriel’s Take“He’s another guy that’s a medical. I saw his runs against Stanford. He had a little burst and slide, a little pick and slide. He had some runs after contact. Right now, he’s not (an NFL prospect).”

(Note: Look for Irish Illustrated’s next NFL draft update with Gabriel in early-December.) Top Stories