Questions abound regarding Tuitt’s NFL potential

South Bend Tribune

The congratulatory tweets came flooding into Stephon Tuitt’s Twitter account as the former Notre Dame defensive end recently reached the final stages of his weight-loss goal.

The more-discerning NFL decision-makers likely won’t be so quick to take the purported good news, a reduction from 330 pounds to 305, to heart.

“It’s easy to get in shape when you have a multi-mill-on dollar payday staring you in the face,” said NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of “So I think teams are going to be concerned. Will he be able to remain in this tip-top shape once he is a potential first-round pick and have that money in the bank?”

The player with arguably the highest ceiling among Notre Dame’s largest contingent of prospects since 2002 headed to the NFL Scouting Combine may also be generating the most questions. Or at least the toughest ones.

Nine players in all from ND are headed to Indianapolis later this week for the NFL’s invitation-only audition. Two others who started their careers in South Bend — UCLA wide receiver Shaq Evans and South Florida defensive end Aaron Lynch — will join them. Only Alabama (12) and LSU (11) have more combine invitees his year than the Irish.

The notable snubs for the Irish — quarterback Tommy Rees and inside linebackers Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox — will have to wait for ND’s own Pro Day, a mini-combine of sorts, on March 20 to show off for NFL personnel types.

Physical exams, media interviews, team interviews and orientation get underway Wednesday. The physical testing, the part that draws in viewership on NFL Network, kicks off Saturday with position groups staggered and concluding Feb. 25.

At times perceived as a sure-fire first-round pick during his junior and final season at ND despite an odd mix of enigmatic and dominating play, the 6-foot-6 Tuitt has started to slip into the second round in many of the more-reliable mock drafts, an interesting barome-ter, but not necessarily a lasting one. The NFL Draft itself is May 8-10 in New York.

Nose guard Louis Nix is projected to be a first-round draft choice, but his conditioning will be tested following season-ending knee surgery in late November for a torn meniscus and the ensuing rehab. Offensive tackle Zack Martin, now projecting as a solid first-rounder, likely has the least to gain or lose among the ND players after a convincing week at the Senior Bowl game and workouts last month.

Early entries George Atkinson, a running back ticketed for the late rounds or undrafted free agency at the moment, and Troy Niklas, a tight end lacking polish but not potential, are the two Irish players who probably could help themselves the most in Indy through the physical testing.

“He’s definitely a freakish specimen,” Wright said of Niklas. “He’s the first guy you want getting off the bus. He just has a rock-solid physique, really chiseled. So when they have that weigh-in and all the players walk up in front of all the scouts and get weighed and measured, he’s going to be one of those guys where there’s an audible gasp in the room. His best football is still ahead of him.”

Tuitt’s may be too, and that question may not just be resolved by physical testing at the combine but by teams getting to the bottom of why his junior season was so uneven. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly has suggested sports hernia surgery in March 2013 was still hampering Tuitt early last season and resulted in him showing up to fall training camp at 322 pounds.

“Is he usually out of shape or is it a one-time thing that stemmed from that offseason surgery that kind of limited his training?” Wright posed. “Teams are going to do their due diligence and investigate Stephon Tuitt.

“It’s kind of a situation at defensive end where you have (South Carolina’s) Jadeveon Clowney, who’s going to go in the top three to five (picks) overall, But then there’s a drop-off. Then there isn’t another defensive end who you can look at who you can say is a top 12, top 15 pick. But that’s always a position that’s in very high demand in the NFL.

“So somebody’s got to fill that gap. It’s just a matter of who’s going to get pushed up.”

Tuitt or Missouri’s Kony Ealy remain the most likely choices at the moment. But Wright said Tuitt won’t be a fit for everyone.

“He’s a very different type of player from Clowney,” Wright said. “He’s not that dynamic edge pass rusher. He’s a good athlete for a guy his size, but probably more of a power player, more a two-way player. In a 4-3 defense, he could play both end or defensive tackle. His best fit might be as a five-technique defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.”

Is the grass greener?

The waiting game continues for the impending announcement as to whether Notre Dame will switch from natural grass to synthetic FieldTurf at Notre Dame Stadium.

The Irish baseball team has already committed to the switch.

When the football decision is made, athletic director Jack Swarbrick said tradition won’t have played a role in it.

“Listen, we recognize and honor the traditions,” he said. “People who feel strongly toward grass, it tends to be more aesthetic and more a view of how the game should be played than it does tradition, because they recognize whether it’s Michigan Stadium or Ohio State, there are a lot of iconic stadiums that have gone to artificial surfaces and it hasn’t impacted people’s views of those facilities.”

Ten of the now 14 Big Ten schools play on FieldTurf. The four natural grass fields are at Michigan State, Purdue, Northwestern and Penn State.

“We talked to Michigan State and Purdue a lot, especially Michigan State,” Swarbrick said. “We share experiences and come to understand it. Michigan State’s input has been one of the things that’s helped us understand that our only natural-grass solution is a com-plete rebuild.

“We’ve got to go down and take the whole thing out at a certain depth to rebuild it, because, effectively, what we’ve done in years of replacing sod has been to create an impenetrable barrier underneath that. The water doesn’t drain through and growth can’t occur with the root structure. They’ve helped us understand those dimensions.”

Swarbrick said that whichever surface is chosen, the installation will have to begin May 19, the day after undergraduate commencement.

More Swarbrick

Swarbrick said the videoboard question for Notre Dame Stadium will be resolved once school officials determine whether the demand for video replays can be solved with individual mobile devices via an improved broadband connection in Notre Dame Stadium.

“There are real limitations today with what you can achieve with a stadium our age,” he said. “We’ve been having some very productive conversation with the Green Bay Packers, who faced this same issue. When you build a new stadium, like the 49ers have done in Santa Clara, then you can clearly solve the issue.

“In older stadiums, it’s more of a challenge. So I want to see what we can achieve there and work from that answer out to, ‘OK, if this is as much as we can do with that, how else are we going to augment the experience?’

“Our fans have been pretty clear to us. They want a different level of information. They want access to video. And our issue right now is how best to deliver it.”

• On the recent wave of academic issues with quarterback Everett Golson last May, and men’s basketball player Jerian Grant and hockey standout Robbie Russo this winter, all of which resulted in university-imposed suspensions:

“What we’ve had in this instance is three that are very high profile that have caused a greater degree of attention to fall on it,” Swarbrick said. “In terms of numbers, it represents neither a trend nor an unusual statistical result in my experience here. It’s just the profile’s different. But having said that, I want to stress again that one is too many, so we have to do a better job.

“We have great resources. We have great people available to help, but I think there are things we can do better, especially in our communication with our student-athletes about expectations and approach. And we’re committed to do that.”

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt celebrates after an interception in the end zone for a touchdown against Michigan in 2013. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHEN: Wednesday through Feb. 25.

WHERE: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis

SCHEDULE: Wednesday though Friday — Physical exams, weigh-ins, team interviews, orientation, media obligations; Saturday — tight ends, offensive linemen, kicking specialists; Sunday — quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers; Feb. 24 — defensive linemen, linebackers; Feb. 25 — defensive backs.

TV: NFL Network. No coverage Wednesday. Coverage starts at 2 p.m. EST on Thursday and Friday, and at 9 a.m. Saturday through Feb. 25.

NOTRE DAME PARTICIPANTS: RB George Atkinson III, CB Bennett Jackson, WR TJ Jones, OT Zack Martin, TE Troy Niklas, NG Louis Nix, OLB Prince Shembo, DE Stephon Tuitt, OG Chris Watt.