Uncertainty surrounds Notre Dame’s Nix

NOTEBOOK

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

It took every bit of 20 minutes into a marathon teleconference Tuesday for NFL Draft analyst Mike Mayock to field his first question about Johnny Manziel.

On the eve of the start of the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, enigmas and freaks of nature apparently are what sell. Seemingly, the Texas A&M quarterback and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has somewhat outgrown both labels, relatively speaking.

The Notre Dame contingent of nine — third-largest among FBS schools at the combine over the next seven days — does carry plenty of shock value, good and bad.

Nose guard Louis Nix falls somewhere in between. He’s more curiosity than enigma, more prospect than suspect. His physical exam will be as telling as his physical testing, in part because his 2013 season lacks context and in part because his only game after Oct. 19 was a five-tackle performance Nov. 9 against Pitt on a bad knee.

“They’re really kind of lightning rods right now around the league,” Mayock said of Nix and Irish defensive end Stephon Tuitt, who were preseason All-Americans in August and projected as sure-fire future first-round draft choices at that time.

All of which means underappreciated, underpublicized offensive tackle Zack Martin could end up being the first Irish player chosen in the NFL Draft, May 8-10.

Or not.

Martin, on the strength of a consistent and dominating performance during the Senior Bowl workouts and game in late January projects as a middle-of-the-first-rounder. The combine isn’t likely to push him one way or another, his body of work being so complete al-ready.

“I think he can play tackle,” Mayock said, “but the beauty in this kid is he can play all five (offensive line) positions in the NFL. And some teams look at him as a Pro Bowl guard.”

Nix still could go in the top 20. In fact, Mayock still rates him as the top interior defensive line prospect in the draft. The state of his surgically repaired knee (torn meniscus) and weight (he played last season at 357) will help frame his résumé.

“He flashed, but didn’t play at a high level all the time,” Mayock said. “He’s got to be a little bit lighter. He’s got to play at 330. So the question is, ‘Can he gain an edge and push the pocket?’ If you believe in that, then he’s probably a top 20 pick. He’s a rare 330-pound nose tackle with some movement skills.

“If you don’t believe that you can get some pass rush out of him, then he’s probably not a top 20 pick for your team.”

Tuitt looks less and less like that under any circumstances by most of those analyzing the draft. His upcoming physical testing is the 6-foot-6 early entry’s opportunity to change minds.

“I think Tuitt, if he went somewhere between 25 and 50, it wouldn’t surprise me,” said Mayock, who no longer lists the ND player among the top five defensive end prospects in the draft. “There are opinions everywhere.”

The common presumption, though, is that Tuitt will show up to the combine at 330 pounds. Tuitt has been tweeting on his Twitter account that he expects to be at or close to 305. If he’s lighter, would he necessarily be more explosive? Those are among the long list of questions he must answer.

Personnel types will note Tuitt never played a complete college season at Notre Dame. His freshman year, flush with bursts of promise, was shortened by a bout of mononucleosis. He also missed a game because of a suspension.

A sports hernia injury was linked to a sluggish second half of 2012, and the after-effects of surgery to correct that problem was the reason given for a slow start to 2013.

Tight end Troy Niklas is the only other Irish player who has a chance to go in the first couple of rounds. Mayock has him as the fourth tight end off the board.

“He’s really only had two years of college football at tight end,” Mayock said of the early entry. “The first year he had Tyler Eifert (playing with him), who got most of the attention while he was trying to learn the position. So, effectively, you’re looking at one year of production as far as catching the football.

“What I think he is, is if he commits to becoming a good in-line blocker, he could be the best blocking tight end in the NFL in two or three years.”

Combine chatter

lþPerhaps in large part because of a record 98 underclassmen, four of whom are from ND, Mayock calls the 2014 crop of talent the deepest and best draft he’s seen in the past 10 years.

“I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top 20 pick this year is very similar to having a top 10 pick last year,” he said.

• Mayock believes Manziel, by the way, will go in the top 10, if not the top 5. He has Manziel rated as the No. 2 QB in the draft, behind only Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and ahead of Central Florida’s Blake Bortles.

“At the end of the day, he’s different than any quarterback I’ve (evaluated) before,” Mayock said “He’s different than RG3. He’s different than Cam Newton. He’s different than Andrew Luck and he’s different than Russell Wilson.

“But I believe in the kid. You’re going to live with some of those negative plays in addition to some of the positive ones.”

• Of the five Irish prospects not projected to go in the first or second round, offensive guard Chris Watt is Mayock’s pick to be selected first among them — and as high as the third round.

Mayock lists Watt as the No. 4 guard available.

• Intererstingly, when the subject of Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came up, his recent revelation about his sexuality was neither in the question or the answer.

“He’s a ’tweener,” Mayock assessed, “and I think that’s why people are having trouble with the evaluation. He’s got linebacker size, but he’s got the physical skill set of a defensive end.

“I think he’s a tough fit. So what I see is a situational pass rusher, not an every-down player, but a situational pass rusher that also can be a core special teams player. And I think he goes somewhere in the third to the fifth round.”

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Former Notre Dame lineman Louis Nix is still considered first-round caliber for the upcoming NFL Draft. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)