Notre Dame's most compelling story lines at the NFL Combine

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Strangely, the most definitive aspect for Jaylon Smith when it comes to life after Notre Dame football so far is that the former Irish All-America linebacker is peddling T-shirts online for $25.

The more significant narratives where Smith is concerned will begin to shift from speculation to substance this week, when the NFL Scouting Combine stages its invitation-only mass job interview/audition Tuesday through Monday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

The twist is they'll have nothing to do with a freaky 40-yard dash time, but instead what the convalescing Smith's MRIs look like eight weeks removed from tearing two ligaments in his left knee.

Ten of the 332 combine invitees this year are from Notre Dame, the second-most of any college in this draft cycle (only to the 14 Fiesta Bowl opponent Ohio State will have represented) and the first time the Irish have been in double digits since cracking 10 invites in 2002.

Four other former Irish players — linebacker Jarrett Grace, safety Matthias Farley, wide receiver Amir Carlisle and NCAA-exiled defensive end Ishaq Williams — will have to wait until ND's Pro Day on March 31 to make an impression.

Three notable outgoing grad transfers from ND — quarterback Everett Golson (Florida State), center Matt Hegarty (Oregon) and safety Eilar Hardy (Bowling Green) — also were left off the combine guest list and will have to take the back roads to a late-round draft choice or undrafted free agent opportunity.

Golson's road, actually, may end up running through South Bend. In an interview with ESPN's Hannah Storm on Monday morning, the former Irish quarterback admitted to be torn as to whether to attend the Irish Pro day or Florida State's two days earlier.

“That's something that I'm still discussing with my agent,” he said.

A combine invite is hardly a guarantee of being drafted, just as a snub doesn't necessarily mean undrafted free agent status.

In 2015, 41 players who went uninvited to the big stage, got drafted anyway in 2015, and 35 percent of combine invitees (117) didn't get drafted. In 2014, the numbers were 32 uninvited players being among the 256 total drafted, and 32.5 percent (108) of combine invitees not getting a phone call.

Smith isn't the only Notre Dame player who will be held out of the physical drills and the running/jumping portion of the combine.

Cornerback KeiVarae Russell, who suffered a broken tibia Nov. 21 against Boston College, is also going to focus on the interview/medical testing portions this week, though unlike Smith he'll be ready to perform at ND's Pro Day.

Staggered by position groups, the players begin arriving in Indianapolis Tuesday. Here are the most compelling story lines involving the 10 ND invitees — Smith, Russell, offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, center Nick Martin, defensive tackle Sheldon Day, defensive end Romeo Okwara, safety Elijah Shumate, running back C.J. Prosise and wide receivers Will Fuller and Chris Brown:

1. Jaylon Smith's medical exams

Draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com is convinced even with the health uncertainty, Smith could still be the first Notre Dame player to go in the top 12 overall since defensive tackle Bryant Young in 1994, the year before Smith was born.

“I think the best-case scenario would probably be the Baltimore Ravens at No. 6,” he said. “That may be overly optimistic, but I think (general manager) Ozzie Newsome is one of the few decision-makers in the league that has the kind of job security and patience that he could afford to wait on Jaylon Smith

“And Jaylon Smith is exactly what they need. They need to get more athletic in their linebacker corps. They need to get younger. They need somebody that can be effective in that position. Jaylon Smith does all of that stuff.

“Ozzie Newsome has kind of made his reputation on taking advantage of other teams passing on players for one reason or another, whether it be Ray Lewis supposedly being too small, Terrell Suggs not running a 40-yard dash time fast enough. And with Jaylon Smith, the question is when will he be ready to play?”

That question won't get answered definitively this week, but there will be a lot more information available to teams.

“The medical checks in the NFL can be subjective,” Wright said. “It can vary from team to team. Two team doctors can look at the same situation and come away with different opinions.

“We'll probably get a general idea of the timetable. I think it's fair to say he's not going to be ready for the start of the season. I think that would really defy expectations, but is he going to be ready a month into the season? Halfway through the season? Is he not going to be able to play at all as a rookie?

“Even though he won't be able to work out and show off his athleticism, he'll be able to interview with teams and show them how smart he is, how he understands defenses. They'll put him to work on the wipe board. I'm sure he'll impress them with his maturity, his leadership and things of that nature.”

2. C.J. Prosise's evolution as a running back

There is no player among the 10 Irish invitees with a wider range of moving up or down between now and the April 28-30 draft than the early-entry who played running back only a year in college.

“I think the first thing he needs to show is his knowledge of the position,” Wright said. “He needs to look good in the position-specific drills on the chalkboard, when he's talking to teams, that he understands how to pick up a blitzes and do the things of that nature.”

Wright expects Prosise to move the needle when it comes to the physical testing, but that with his recent injury history, the medical exams may also be telling.

“I think there's a lot of opportunity at the running back position going into this scouting combine,” Wright said. “You have Ezekiel Elliott (of Ohio State) at the top, then there's a pretty big drop-off. Then you have Derrick Henry from Alabama.

“But then there's probably four or five guys, including Prosise, who are kind of jockeying for position with that next tier. The way this pre-draft process plays out is going to go a long way in determining who's the third running back off the board and maybe top 50, top 64 pick (round 2), and who's the sixth running back off the board and maybe falls to day three (rounds 5-7).

3. Beyond Will Fuller's 40 time

For comparison's sake, the 40-times logged at the combine by ND's two earliest-drafted wide receivers since 1996 were Michael Floyd (2012 first-rounder) 4.47 seconds and Golden Tate (2010 second-rounder) 4.42.

Fuller is expected to log a faster time than both, but if he doesn't, it doesn't appear to be critical to his overall résumé.

“You can just put on the tape and see him running by (USC cornerback and track All-American) Adoree' Jackson this season,” Wright said of Fuller whom he projects to the Ravens early in round 2 (No. 36 overall). “There's nobody who can run with him on the field vertically. The speed on the tape is so impressive.”

The more pivotal number will be his weight, and whether that new number reflects an increase in strength and suggests more durability, not that the latter was an issue during his college career.

“He is so slight, his build is going to be a concern,” Wright said. “But if he's making progress, if he comes in at, say, 190 rather than 184 that he played at last season. I think that'll make teams feel a little better.”

4. Late-round wild cards

Defensive end Romeo Okwara and safety Elijah Shumate continue to straddle the line between late-round projections and going undrafted entirely.

Uneven performances during the East-West Shrine Game practices last month exposed both pitfalls and potential.

The combine gives them both a chance to emphasize the latter.

“Shumate has been a little inconsistent,” Wright said, “but he looks the part, and I think he needs to work out well to kind of continue giving teams faith in that potential that he's going to continue to improve. I think he at best a day-three pick on the tape alone. Teams are going to want reason to believe.”

Scouts at the East-West Shrine Game lauded Shumate's hard-hitting as a tackler, but worried about his coverage skills when asked to play in space.

Okwara's performance raised questions about his motor and his technique, but he's just 20 years old and has physical traits some teams believe they can build upon.

“He measured in with 35½-inch arms, freakishly long arms. He's 6-4 5/8, 266 pounds. Like Shumate, he really looks the part. He's a guy who's got some upside, and I think he's a guy who's going to be drafted on day three.

“Teams are always looking for pass rushers, and they go early and often. Usually the options, when you get to the third day of the draft, are pretty limited. When you get to the fourth, fifth round, I don't know how many pass rushers that are going to be left who are more intriguing than Romeo Okwara.”

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (9) is attended to after being injured against Ohio State during the Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1 in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/RICK SCUTERI)