Mild pre-draft drama for Notre Dame's Nix

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

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Maybe in Louis Nix’s world of quips, big smiles and seemingly relentless tweeting of random benign thoughts, his recent perceived slippage in next week’s NFL Draft could be perceived as actual drama.

Then again, the former Notre Dame defensive lineman had a front-row seat for the 2013 Manti Te’o predraft narrative, a storyline hijacked by the still-unproven assertion that the Irish All-America linebacker was a co-conspirator, and not a victim, of one of the most bizarre and exposed hoaxes in or out of sports.

Nix’s biggest potential headache, by comparison, is that with just over a week to go before the late-arriving 2014 NFL Draft (May 8-10 in New York), he might end up being a second-rounder, rather than the first-rounder he was projected to be in the weeks and months leading up to this final stretch.

Notre Dame defensive linemate Stephon Tuitt, like Nix an early entry, has already ridden out his supposed stock drop and has begun to rebound and project as a late first-rounder in most mocks. Both ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr., and Todd McShay targeted Tuitt as the 32nd and final pick of the first round to the world champion Seattle Seahawks, in the analysts’ latest respective projections released on Tuesday.

Nix didn’t make the first round in either one of those mocks, nor draftcountdown.com analyst Scott Wright’s, with Nix cast as the 10th pick of the second round (42nd overall) to Tennessee.

“They (Nix and Tuitt) both played better two years ago,” assessed NFL analyst Jon Gruden, a South Bend Clay High grad and former NFL head coach, during a Tuesday media conference call. “I think that’s clear to everybody.

“They both played a lot lighter two years ago. I think that’s clear to everybody. And I think it’s a mystery to everyone why they were heavier this year. I think those are three things that are clear in regards to Nix and Tuitt.”

Both players lost considerable weight during the pre-draft process — the 6-foot-5 Tuitt from around 330 to the 300 mark, and the 6-2 Nix from 357 to 331.

“To me, Nix is a pure nose tackle in a 3-4 defense,” Gruden said. “And the problem with Nix — if there is one — is these teams that come out there with three and four wide receivers, and they get you in a sub defense. He might not warrant an early selection if he doesn’t improve his pass rush,

“To me Tuitt is the prototype defensive end in a 3-4 defense. He can shock a tackle. He can beat up a tight end. He certainly is a physical man. That’s what I like about Tuitt.

“He rushed the passer better two years ago. I think he needs to maintain that weight he had two years ago, because he does have a power rush, he does have some deceptive speed. I like both players. I think I’d kind of lean toward Tuitt, because of his position versa-tility.”

Wright added that Tuitt’s durability is a question, given an injury history that included surgery on his left foot less than two months ago.

“This is a pattern,” Wright said. “That’s the disconcerting thing. Basically a season and a half of his (three-year) college career was him not playing up to probably his optimal level because of injuries. I think people are worried.”

Likely eight Notre Dame draft hopefuls will hear the names called during the three-day blather/stat-a-thon that kicks off May 8 at 8 p.m. EDT. If so, that would be the largest Irish draft contingent since the 1994 group of 10, led by first-rounders Bryant Young, Aaron Tay-lor and Jeff Burris.

A couple of long shots — linebacker Dan Fox and running back George Atkinson — could push the Irish draft haul to double digits.

The jewel of the ND draft class has become offensive tackle Zack Martin, who during the season was viewed as too short (6-4) and short-armed (32-µ inches) to play tackle at the professional level, leaving him to be a standout, but less draft valuable, guard.

His ascension from second- or third-round pick to sure-fire first-rounder started with his dominant Senior Bowl workouts in late January and haven’t ebbed since.

Kiper has Martin going 15th to Pittsburgh, McShay projects him 17th to Baltimore and Wright slots him 19th to Miami.

“I love Zack Martin at Notre Dame,” Gruden offered. “He may be my favorite lineman in this draft.”

If Martin does go in the first round, as expected, he’ll be ND’s fourth first-rounder in a three-year span, after the school produced just two (center Jeff Faine and QB Brady Quinn) between 2000 and 2011. Nix and Tuitt are still in play to make it six in three drafts.

“I think Nix could go to the Patriots at 29,” Wright said, “but his best chance to go in the first round is probably the Chargers at 25.”

That’s the same team that traded up to draft Te’o last April with the 38th overall pick when the Laie, Hawaii native slid out of the first round.

It still was the highest draft position by an ND linebacker since Bob Crable — the school’s career, single-season and single-game record-holder for tackles — went 23rd to the New York Jets in 1982.

Gruden was one of the first independent thinkers to go against the grain of scorn felt toward Te’o and publicly tout his character and his football future. He did so last March after having Te’o as a guest on Gruden’s popular QB Camp series on ESPN. The 2013 season was the first to include some non-QBs.

Te’o missed almost all of the Chargers’ preseason practices and games last fall and the first three regular-season games of his rookie year with a foot injury. He finished with 61 tackles, third-most among rookie linebackers and behind only Buffalo’s Kiko Alonso and the Rams’ Alec Ogletree.

“With Te’o. I really liked him coming out of Notre Dame,” Gruden said, “and I really liked the progress that he made at San Diego. Joe Barry is the linebacker coach for the Chargers. He was my linebacker coach in Tampa for several years.

“What you have is an every-down linebacker who can communicate the game. And everybody talks about the quarterback and the no-huddle offense and all the statistics, and I think it’s it great. But who’s the defensive player that makes all the checks, makes all the calls and lines up the defense? Well, that would be a linebacker like Te’o, who’s on the field all the time.

“I mean, he showed great progress. The Chargers were one of the great secrets in football on defense late in the year. They beat Peyton Manning late in the year — in Denver. They beat Cincinnati in the playoffs, and Te’o had a lot to do with it.”

Ready or not?

Tight end Troy Niklas, one of four early entrees from Notre Dame and one of three true juniors from the school in the draft, is projected by Wright to go late in the second round (62nd overall) to New England.

“It remains to be seen, but I don’t think any player from any school left potentially as much money on the table this year than Niklas,” Wright said. “Even it he’s a second-round pick, I think if he had gone back for one more year, he would have been the No. 1 tight end going into next season and projected as a likely first-round pick. Whereas now, I’ve heard everything from the second to the fourth.

“Part of it we just don’t know the medical (status) and how teams feel about that. I think it’s a lesson, you should probably think twice about going pro when you’re not completely healthy, because the pre-draft process is harsh enough when you’re going at it 100 percent.”

-- Part of that same recruiting ND recruiting class as Niklas was defensive end Aaron Lynch, who earned freshman All-America honors at ND in 2011, then regressed at South Florida in 2013 after sitting out the 2012 season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a prospect decline as greatly in such a short time as Aaron Lynch,” Wright said. “I remember watching him as a true freshman and thinking, ‘That’s a first-round pick all day long.’ Now it almost doesn’t look like the same player on film.

“I truly believe he possesses first-round talent, but does he have the intangibles needed to maximize that talent? So far, the answer is no.

“I still have him as the first late-round defensive end in my rankings, just because of his potential. If you can get a hold of him, get him turned around, get his head on straight, you could potentially get a steal. But it’s kind of shame, Hopefully, he can get it turned around. I honestly don’t know what to make of him, and I don’t think the NFL people know either.”

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame's Louis Nix III pressures Pittsburgh quarterback Tom Savage during their game last season. (SBT File Photo/JAMES BROSHER)