Long wait for Notre Dame's Tuitt, longer wait for Nix

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

With each second-round pick that clicked off early Friday night, the perplexing NFL Draft slides of former Notre Dame defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix grew a little deeper and a little darker.

For Tuitt, the emotional, bumpy and protracted ride ended at pick No. 46, 14 selections into round two, when the Pittsburgh Steelers snatched the 6-foot-5, 300-pounder off the board as the fifth defensive end.

“All I know is I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Tuitt said in a conference call, shortly after wiping away tears of presumed joy. “It was meant for me to come to the Steelers.”

Former Irish and Steelers QB Terry Hanratty (father of current Irish offensive guard Conor Hanratty) made the guest announcement of the pick on ESPN.

Troy Niklas at No. 52 in round 2 to Arizona, then Nix at 83 in round 3 to Houston followed. Offensive guard Chris Watt was the final Irish player taken Friday night, 89th to the San Diego Chargers, before day 2 came to a close.

Teammate Zack Martin was the first ND player selected in the 79th-annual draft. Dallas took the offensive lineman Thursday night with pick No. 16. The five players selected in rounds 1-3 was two short of matching the largest showing by Notre Dame in the top thrree rounds in draft history, still held by the 1994 draft class.

Rounds 4-7 of the three-day, seven-round, 256-player second-guess fest unfolds Saturday starting at noon EDT (ESPN, NFL Network). Four more ND players, and as many as six, could swell the Irish draft contingent to its largest total since 10 ND draftees were taken in 1994.

Tuitt, at pick No. 46, becomes the highest-drafted ND defensive lineman since Renaldo Wynn went 21st to Jacksonville in 1997, edging Trevor Laws (47th to Philadelphia in 2008) by a single spot. But in January, when Tuitt cannonballed into the NFL Draft pool as a junior, as one of a record 102 early entries, the 2012 second-team All-American seemed like a sure-fire first-rounder.

So did Nix, one of four ND underclassmen in the draft mix, but the only one who will secure a degree before he leaves for mini-camp.

Tuitt, who lost 30 pounds during his pre-draft prep, had to deal with a Jones fracture (a break in the foot near the baby toe) that was uncovered at the NFL Combine in late February and prompted combine officials to limit him only to do the bench press among the physical testing in Indianapolis.

The Monroe, Ga., product and Miami native was scratched against his will in the running drills, for liability reasons, but less than a week later, his agent set up a Pro Day at the Lovett School in the Atlanta area. Days later he underwent surgery on his left foot.

It was in Atlanta where Pittsburgh Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell was won over by the lighter, swifter Tuitt.

“I think we got a really good football player,” Mitchell said of the 35th ND player all-time to be drafted by Pittsburgh but the first since wide receiver and fifth-rounder Malcolm Johnson in 1999.

“We feel like we got a steal in the second round with our pick. ... If you look at him during his sophomore year, this guy was probably one of the best defensive linemen in college.”

But the incongruence between the 2012 film and the 2013 production of both Tuitt and Nix separated the 2013 preseason first-team All-Americans from their seemingly unshakable first-round destinies — Nix dramatically so.

How much was injuries? How much was scheme? How much was living on their 2012 reputations? In the end, teams had to believe their best football was ahead of them, that 2013 was the anomaly and not 2012 if they were going to remain first-rounders.

“They both played better two years ago,” ESPN NFL analyst and former Super Bowl-winning head coach Jon Gruden said in the days leading up to the draft. “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.”

The 6-6, 270-pound Niklas, meanwhile, went right about where he was projected. The caveat on the three-and-out junior was that he’s only played the tight end position for two years, and a pre-draft injury kept him from ever running a 40-yard dash for scouts.

But Arizona made him the 12th tight end in school history to be taken in the first or second round and the fifth-straight Irish starting tight end to get chosen in the top two rounds.

He’ll team up in Arizona with ND’s all-time leading receiver Michael Floyd, a first-round pick in the 2011 draft; former ND running back Robert Hughes and one of those Irish tight end standouts, John Carlson. The seventh-year veteran was a second-round pick by Seattle in 2008.

“He’s a guy that in our mind has just started to scratch the surface on what he can become,” Arizona general manager Steve Keim said of Niklas. “At 6-6, 270 pounds, he has a tremendous physique, great size, athleticism, and the upside is really scary when we look at the package.

“He is a guy that is a good player right now, and when you see the potential on tape, it excites you. He was a guy that (head coach) Bruce (Arians) and I have focused on for quite some time now. We were really relieved that he was still there for us at 52.”

When asked how close Niklas is to being able to play a significant role for the Cardinals, Arians responded: “How long does it take to get on an airplane?”

Arians added that had Niklas chosen to stay in school, he likely would have been a top 10 pick overall in the 2015 draft.

“I just kind of had a good feeling,” Niklas said of his early departure. “Everything looked bright, so I just went ahead and came out. It wasn’t an easy thing. That’s for sure, but I’m hoping that it will pay off here in a couple years.”

For Nix, it wasn’t about whether 2014 could have seasoned him more for the pro game. It was about the fall-off in 2013.

“He’ll probably come into the league with a chip on his shoulder,” ESPN Draft analyst Todd McShay said Friday during ESPN’s telecast. “But he can’t be the slow, out-of-condition player he was a year ago, because he won’t last in this league if he is.”

Nix tweeted out “Chicken Time” on his Twitter account, shortly after being selected.

“I mean, it’s time to eat,” he explained. “I finally got picked, and it’s time to go.”

The Texans — whose draft class includes overall No. 1 pick, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney — traded up to get Nix with pick No. 83, a selection that changed hands through four teams before the actual selection.

“Projections are projections,” Nix said when asked how disappointed he was that he didn’t get picked sooner. “I don’t listen to the mocks, I shouldn’t look at them.

“They can amp you up and sometimes you’ll fall. I fell, some people had me first, but who cares at this point. I got drafted; a lot of people can’t say that, so I’m just happy to have this opportunity.”

Watt, whose final season at ND — like Nix’s — ended with a knee injury, went six picks after Nix and will join forces with former teammate Manti Te’o in San Diego. Te’o, a linebacker and Heisman Trophy runner-up, was a second-round pick in the 2013 draft.

By the time Watt came off the board, Tuitt was already getting acquainted with his new team and being reminded by the Pittsburgh media that his last trip to their city didn’t end up so well.

Tuitt was ejected early in a 28-21 loss to the Panthers Nov. 9 at the Steelers’ Heinz Field after being flagged for targeting. Pitt QB Tom Savage, the alleged target, even pooh-poohed the call.

“Our defensive players did what we were supposed to do to make sure that the offensive players stopped getting first downs,” Tuitt said with a laugh when prodded about his recent history in the city. “Of course, as a defensive player, I think that’s the worst call in America. But you can’t do much about that.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt, left, and Louis Nix both heard their names called during the second day of the NFL Draft. (SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER)