Notre Dame's Nix stays humble while making his move

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He sounded like the kid trying to sneak into an NFL training camp down the back roads and through a trap door.

Louis Nix’s post-Notre Dame Pro Day theme Thursday afternoon was all about getting better, all about talking about if and not when he’d get selected in the May 8-10 NFL draft, all about playing punter if that’s what the streamlined 6-foot-2¼, 331-pound nose guard’s new team ultimately wanted him to do.

Make no mistake, though, Nix was a main reason all 32 NFL teams were represented at the pro football mass audition and why Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin almost hovered over the Jacksonville, Fla., product during position-specific drills.

“It wasn’t intimidating,” Nix said. “I just wanted to look in his eyes and show him I’m ready, ‘I can be on your team if you want me to.’ He’s a good guy and a cool coach. I just enjoyed the whole thing.”

So much so in fact, that Nix reran the 40-yard dash Thursday, after lumbering to a 5.42 time at the invitation-only NFL Combine in Indianapolis last month, solely to support former teammate Kona Schwenke. Schwenke, a 6-4¼, 285-pound defensive lineman and Nix’s backup last season, clocked an inspired 4.88 — roughly the same time put up by linebacker Carlo Calabrese (4.86) and significantly quicker than quarterback Tommy Rees (5.09).

Maybe it was karma, but Nix actually trimmed .06 off his combine time (5.36), despite running it on a whim and not having trained for it in over a month. He also significantly shaved time off his combine performance in the three-cone drill, logging 7.94 seconds, down from 8.29. And he put up 24 reps at 225 pounds in the bench press.

The most eye-catching numbers of the day, though, were put up by linebacker Dan Fox — 4.59 in the 40 while running shirtless — and cornerback Bennett Jackson — 4.40 in the 40, a significant improvement over his 4.51 at the NFL Combine.

Sixteen former Irish made appearances at the run/jump/drill fest that attracted Tomlin and Jacksonville’s Gus Bradley among NFL head coaches, as well as general managers from those two teams (David Caldwell and Kevin Colbert) and the Buffalo Bills. (Doug Whaley).

Two of the 16, wide receiver Robby Toma and offensive lineman Mike Golic Jr., last played for the Irish in 2012. Each spent time in NFL camps last spring (Toma with the Cardinals, Golic with the Steelers).

Only Fox, Calabrese and Schwenke performed in every physical test Thursday and the position drills.

Defensive end Stephon Tuitt, recovering from foot surgery, and tight end Troy Niklas did the least Thursday. Tuitt schmoozed with NFL personnel types and had his arms and hands measured.

Niklas subjected to that as well as having his height and weight logged. Significantly, he skipped the 40, just as he did at the NFL Combine, then left the session before the media were given access to the players. NFL.com's Gil Brandt reported Niklas' inactivity was due to double hernia surgery on March 11.

Tuitt and Niklas remain the great unknowns inside and outside of draft circles, though the former filled in some of the blanks Thursday. Tuitt, once projected as a sure-fire first-rounder, seemingly slipped into the second round before the combine. But after losing roughly 30 pounds, he may be on his way back up again. Niklas is a likely second-rounder.

Tuitt said he never had an inkling he had suffered a Jones fracture (a break in the foot near the baby toe) until it was uncovered at the NFL Combine. He was allowed to do the bench press in Indianapolis, but he was scratched against his will in the running drills, for liability reasons.

Less than a week later, his agent set up a Pro Day at the Lovett School in the Atlanta area, which Tuitt says was attended by reps of more than 20 teams. He also claims to have run a 40-yard dash there in 4.8 seconds.

“It was a great performance,” he said. “ I felt like the position drills really helped me.”

Tuitt underwent surgery about two weeks ago. He was wearing a protective boot on his left foot Thursday. He said he’s projected to be cleared by doctors to resume some football activity in three weeks and to be 100 percent in five weeks.

Whether he sneaks in a private workout just before the draft depends on whether those projections are correct, Tuitt said.

The one thing definitely on his agenda is plotting on how he’ll get his degree, a promise he made his mother when he became one of three true juniors from ND this January to leave early.

“I’m going to do it in the offseasons,” Tuitt said. “It’ll probably take two offseasons to get my degree in my hand. And I’ll do it here (at ND), of course.”

There were so many different agendas Thursday. For players like Fox, Calabrese, Schwenke, kicker Nick Tausch and Rees — all snubbed by the NFL Combine selection process — it might be the only chance for them to get in front of NFL eyes before the draft and subsequent rookie free-agent signing spree.

For Watt, it was a chance to participate in all that he missed at the combine while still recovering from injuries. For offensive tackle Zack Martin, like Nix a headliner Thursday, it was another chance to boost his still-ascending profile.

That included Martin taking some center snaps.

“Versatility is one of my biggest attributes, so the more I can show guys, the better,” said Martin, projected by most mocks to be the first Irish player taken, somewhere in the middle of the first round. “I've worked on it, because I had an idea they were going to have me snap.”

Some players just wanted to improve a number or two from the combine, Jackson’s 40 being an example.

“I just knew I had two bad starts at the combine,” he said. “I knew I could run faster than that, so I went out there today and showed a bunch of guys that I could.”

But he tweaked a hamstring, while running the 40 and ended up sitting out the position drills. In the interim, Jackson said he received lots of positive feedback from teams, including a number of them projecting him as an NFL safety, as former ND cornerback and current Minnesota Viking Robert Blanton did recently.

“I’d say the last time I played safety was probably Pop Warner,” Jackson said, “but I feel like I would catch on to it quick. I actually feel like I’d be a better safety than I would at corner.”

For Nix, it really wasn’t about the numbers, but then again it was. That he played through a painful knee meniscus injury for most of last season before succumbing to surgery in November mitigated numbers last season that didn’t equal his breakthrough 2012 campaign.

Nix showed at the combine that he was healthy and managed to get his weight from 357 to 331.

“For breakfast, it was like a parfait with granola and Greek yogurt. It was disgusting,” he said of his pre-combine eating regimen. “Then I got a lunch salad and a dinner salad. And if I got hungry, they gave me a snack salad. So I had a lot of salad going on.

“My mom wanted to get me some (Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal). She was talking about getting me some for my birthday, but I was like, ‘Nah, I can’t touch it.’ ”

The test Thursday was whether Nix could sustain the post-surgery surge. He held firm at 331, his lowest weight since his junior year at Jacksonville Raines High, and showed an improved burst in the physical testing and position drills.

“It’s hard to judge yourself,” he said. “Other people say I’m faster, I’m quicker and I move a little bit better. So I’m happy about that.”

And happy to be back at Notre Dame. He’ll stick around campus in April to complete a two-hour elective that will deliver his ND degree in May.

“I’m going to miss it,” he said of Notre Dame. “I was thinking about it today. ‘Man I miss South Bend.’ I didn’t think I’d ever say that, but ah man. I miss being around the people I hang out with. I miss my roomies. I miss the students I hang out with. Two days ago I went to eat in the dining hall just to do it, ‘cause I really miss being around people.”

And to think he almost walked away from it all early in his career, but his mother, Stephanie Wingfield, wouldn’t let him.

And now?

“My mom doesn’t want anything out of this,” Nix said when asked how the NFL bump in income might change her life. “She just wants me to graduate and hopefully get drafted.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com ¦ 574-235-6112 ¦Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame defensive lineman Louis Nix runs through a drill during Notre Dame's Pro Day for NFL football scouts Thursday, March 20, 2014, in South Bend, Ind. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)

Here are the measurables for the Irish players who participates in Notre Dame Pro Day Thursday.

George Atkinson III, RB: 6-1 3/8, 218; 4.38 20-yard shuttle, 7.10 3-cone.

Carlo Calabrese, ILB: 6-1, 236; 4.86 40-yard dash, 4.50 20-yard shuttle, 7.10 3-cone, 30 vertical, 9-2 broad jump, 25 reps on the bench.

Dan Fox, ILB: 6-2 5/8, 233; 4.59 40-yard dash, 4.31 20-yard shuttle, 7.07 3-cone, 32 vertical, 10-1 broad jump, 15 reps on bench.

Mike Golic Jr., OL: 6-4 1/4, 302.

Bennett Jackson, CB: 6-0, 191; 4.40 40-yard dash.

TJ Jones, WR: 5-11 3/4, 190.

Zack Martin, OT: 6-4 1/4, 309.

Troy Niklas, TE: 6-61/2, 268.

Louis Nix, NG: 6-2 1/4, 331; 5.36 40-yard dash, 7.94 3-cone, 24 reps on bench.

Tommy Rees, QB: 6-1 1/2, 210; 5.09 40-yard dash, 4.54 20-yard shuttle, 7.32 3-cone, 31 vertical leap, 8-1 broad jump, 32-of-34 passing.

Kona Schwneke, DL: 6-4 1/4, 285; 4.88 40-yard dash; 4.59 20-yard shuttle; 7.16 3-cone, 29 vertical leap, 9-0 broad jump, 27 reps on bench.

Prince Shembo, OLB: 6-1 1/4, 255.

Nick Tausch, K: 5-11 7/8, 194: 30 vertical leap, 8-10 broad jump, 13 reps on bench.

Robby Toma, WR: 5-8, 175; 4.57 in the 40-yard dash, 28.5 vertical leap, 8-8 broad jump.

Stephon Tuiitt, DE: Injured, only had arm length and hands measured.

Chris Watt, OG: 6-2 3/4, 313; 5.30 40-yard dash, 4.76 20-yard shuttle, 7.60 3-cone, 28.5 vertical leap, 8-8 broad jump.