FOOTBALL

In an ND draft class heavy on long shots, Brindza climbs back into relevance

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The very fact that Kyle Brindza is relevant this week, NFL Draft time, speaks every bit as much to things like his 14 career tackles and his weight room prowess as it does reconstructing his kicking mojo.

The Notre Dame kicker/punter, who proudly and consistently defied the stereotypes of his position with the same fervor he pushed aside a doctor’s prognosis that the clubfoot he was born with would prevent him from ever playing sports, wasn’t a struggling “specialist” when both his football present and future went dark last November.

Instead, he was one of them — a guy who sweated with his Notre Dame football teammates and grinded in the weight room and never skipped a chance to get faster and stronger, no matter how seeming irrelevant it might have appeared from the outside looking in.

“At the end of the day, those are the things that brought me closer to my teammates,” said Brindza, ND’s most buoyant and intriguing pro prospect in the 2015 draft cycle, which kicks off the three-day, seven-round process Thursday night in Chicago with round one at 8 p.m. EDT (ESPN, NFL Network).

“When I went through a struggle my senior year, missing all those field goals, if I never was in the weight room with my teammates working with them as hard as I did, I don’t believe they would have been there for me. And coach (Brian) Kelly would not have stuck with me.

“They would have brought up (freshman) Tyler Newsome and burned his redshirt year. The fact of the matter is they had my back, and that came from my hard work and preparation off the field.”

That and a resurgence that started with a game-winning 32-yard-field goal Dec. 30 in the 31-28 Music City Bowl upending of LSU and continued through ND’s Pro Day last month may or may not land him as one of the 256 selections in this year’s draft.

But there is definitely strong interest from at least a dozen teams as his 3-for-9 November slide with his field goals is perceived now more as an extended Mulligan than a red flag.

“I have him rated second among all kickers,” draft analyst Scott Wright, of draftcountdown.com, said. “And you could make a really strong case that Kyle Brindza is the top kicker out there. The fact that he can kick off and punt too only adds to his value.

“It comes down to consistency. If he can develop a high degree of consistency, he can be a starting kicker in the NFL for a long time. If he continues to miss the kicks he’s expected to make, he’ll be out of the league real quick.”

Tight end Ben Koyack remains ND’s top draft prospect, and possibly the only Irish player who won’t have to come into training camp through the undrafted free agent route. But his stock continues to slip.

Most seven-round mocks have him as a fifth-rounder. If so, that not only would break the string of five straight Irish starting tight ends eventually being drafted in the first or second round, it would also mark the latest the first ND player came off the board since quarterback Jarious Jackson was Notre Dame’s lone draftee as a seventh-rounder in 2000.

“I think he’s going to play in the league,” said Wright, who has Koyack 11th among tight end prospects in the draft. “But he just pales in comparison to the top prospects at the position that Notre Dame’s been producing in recent years.”

He actually paled in comparison to some of Brindza’s numbers at ND’s Pro Day, coming in an inch less on his vertical leap (30 to 31 inches for Brindza) and five reps fewer at 225 pounds (16 to 21) while running his 40-yard dash in the 4.7s.

Other possible ND draftees in an unusually shallow talent pool include cornerback Cody Riggs and early entry wide receiver DaVaris Daniels.

This ND draft class, heavy on long shots among its small overall numbers, was diluted for several reasons, including standouts Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas all coming out early last year. Meanwhile, injuries doused the draft dreams of players such as Christian Lombard, Tony Springmann and Ben Councell, all of whom had next-level talent, next-level aspirations or both at some point.

Defensive end Ishaq Williams’ academic-related suspension took him out of the draft mix this year. And then Kelly had a hand in shrinking the potential draft class when he was able to convince top prospects Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day to stay at ND for another season when they were pondering early departures.

“Next year is going to be very busy and very interesting for Notre Dame come draft time,” Wright said.

That this cycle is busy/interesting for Brindza is exactly how the season started for the man who holds the career record for field goals made at ND (57) and most career field goals of 50 yards or more (4) and shares the mark for longest field goal (53 yards).

Even with the late-season slump, Brindza booted 64 percent of his kickoffs for touchbacks in 2014 and still finished 23-of-29 on field goals in his college career when it mattered most —in game-winning or game-tying situations or lead-extending field goals in the fourth quarter or overtime.

During his November slump, Brindza was 0-for-4 in such instances, including a miss in the final minute of a loss to Louisville that would have sent the game into overtime and another in overtime against Northwestern in a game that the Wildcats rallied to win.

One of his two other “clutch” misses came in October on a botched hold in the rain in a win over Stanford. That got Kelly rethinking the holder situation.

And during the slide, Kelly ended up changing out struggling holder Hunter Smith and replacing him with backup quarterback Malik Zaire.

Brindza’s preference was for Kelly to stay with Smith, in part because Zaire at that point was getting more meaningful reps at quarterback, and scheduling time to get in sync with each other became increasingly more difficult.

“I let it rattle me,” Brindza said. “I was questioning everything and letting my mental toughness kind of fall. And without mental toughness, you’re not going to be on top of your physical game.”

Brandon Kornblue, a former Michigan kicker and Brindza’s offseason kicking coach, helped him on the road back as did NFK kickers Jay Feely and Blair Walsh, and former ND kicking star John Carney.

“They helped me see what I was doing wrong,” Brindza said. “But just as importantly, they helped me see what I was going right.”

At Brindza’s Pro Day, San Diego Chargers assistant special teams coach Craig Auckerman put those lessons to the test, serving as Brindza’s holder and purposely giving him imperfect spots and holds. Brindza didn’t miss one of the six attempts during that trial.

Later the Chargers worked out Brindza privately as did the Detroit Lions.

“I believe it was God’s plan to have a tough situation like that,” Brindza said of the trying November and uncertain weeks that followed.

“I’ve said a lot of times God gives his toughest battles to his strongest soldiers, and I believe that was one of the things He put on my plate — to be able to get through all this, to be able to understand the ups and downs, to see what’s possible when people don’t lose faith in you, and to develop the resolve that nothing’s going to hold you back anymore.”

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

(574) 235-6112

@EHansenNDI

Notre Dame players celebrate with kicker Kyle Brindza (27) after his game-winning field goal in a 31-28 victory over LSU in the Music City Bowl, Dec. 30 in Nashville, Tenn. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)