Mike Mayock breaks down what to watch at Notre Dame Pro Day

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Had Jaylon Smith been dealt a more forgiving script, the former Notre Dame linebacker would likely have been largely a Pro Day bystander anyway.

With a freaky 40-time already logged at the NFL Combine, the debate lit on whether he could be the very first name called in the 2016 NFL Draft — April 28-30 in Chicago — and the details oozing out on how his recently concocted deal with Adidas might add to his impending financial and notoriety windfalls.

Instead, the draft early entry will wander Notre Dame’s Loftus Center Thursday, perhaps still gingerly, as the greatest unknown among the 17 NFL hopefuls who are expected to pull in representatives from all 32 NFL teams.

And Smith, with a torn ACL and LCL still mending in his left knee, will be in absolutely no position to do anything about it short of ever-so-subtly moving the needle by interviewing well in meetings with team reps.

Florida State quarterback Everett Golson, a two-year starter at Notre Dame before his fifth-year defection; Ishaq Williams, two seasons and a position switch removed from his most recent meaningful snaps; and medical comeback kid Jarrett Grace add additional intrigue to the mother of all Pro Days at ND.

A year ago, 11 former Irish players, including a handful of grad transfers, participated with only one of them being drafted. That was tight end Ben Koyack, who was taken in the seventh and final round by Jacksonville, and spent his entire rookie season on the Jaguars’ practice squad.

Cornerback Cody Riggs, an undrafted free agent, was the only player from that group to stick on an NFL active roster for the entire season. He played in 11 games for the Tennessee Titans in 2015, making 14 solo tackles and recording a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and two pass break-ups.

This year’s group is an in-your-face tip of the cap to ND coach Brian Kelly’s player development model, with as many as 10 of the 17 in the mix to be among the 253 names to be called at the end of next month, and the other seven all viable options to end up in camps as undrafted free agents.

“I think the Notre Dame coaches recruit exceptionally well and they develop exceptionally well,” NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said Tuesday in a phone interview, “and I think the proof is in the pudding.”

Smith’s successful move from his comfort zone at outside linebacker to earning unanimous All-America status at inside linebacker this past season is a main thread in that story, even if his NFL future has regressed into a morass of divergent speculation.

His window to more definitively shape opinions about a left knee injury that has shattered his can’t-miss invincibility comes April 14-15. That’s when the Fort Wayne, Ind., product reports back to Indianapolis for a medical recheck of the surgically repaired knee that was injured in the Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl and was the talk of the NFL Combine last month.

It’s not so much concern over the ACL and LCL as it is what might come with that.

“If there is nerve damage, which was the indication at the combine, then that’s really a difficult scenario for NFL teams,” Mayock said. “You look at (former South Carolina running back) Marcus Lattimore a couple of years ago.

“Any time nerve damage is attached to the conversation of the knee, I’ve heard teams over the years get very, very nervous about whether a player will: A) even be able to try to come back and B) If he does, will he ever approach 100 percent? And I think the fear of the unknown causes teams to be very conservative when dealing with players with nerve damage.

“If the medical recheck hasn’t changed, then I’m very nervous for what the Jaylon Smith situation will ultimately be as it relates to the draft.”

Three players who Thursday can most affect their draft status are cornerback KeiVarae Russell and wide receivers Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

Russell and Brown were both invited to the combine, but Russell — coming back from a broken tibia suffered in late November — only participated in the bench press at Indianapolis. And Brown elected to defer all his physical testing until Pro Day.

“I think there’s some curiosity out there as to what kind of shape KeiVarae Russell is in, what he’s going to run, how healthy is he,” Mayock said. “I think if he was 100 percent and is able to come out and run well and put himself kind of back in the forefront of team’s minds, he could really help himself.

“Chris Brown was heavier than I expected. He was 194 at the combine. I’m anxious to see if he’s trying to cut weight to run faster or can NFL teams expect to get a 194-pound Chris Brown running at whatever he’s going to run?”

Russell revealed to the media at the combine that he had played the entire season, up to when it was truncated by the tibia break, with a stress fracture in the same leg.

Meanwhile, Carlisle, whose career was pocked by injuries, both at his original school USC and at ND, finally put together a healthy season.

“He’s quick and fast,” Mayock offered. “And if he runs a real good number, which he’s capable of with his track background, if he can catch the ball well and try to sell himself as a slot receiver/kick returner, I think he could help himself also.”

While ND has had plenty of players make NFL rosters who were NFL Combine snubs over the years, only two in the 2000s have parlayed a strong Pro Day into actually being drafted — defensive tackle Derek Landri (fifth round) and cornerback Mike Richardson (sixth), both in the 2007 draft.

Golson, an ND grad even though he finished his football career as a Seminole, will try to join that select group, but he’s a long shot by all accounts.

“Golson initially played OK when he got to Florida State, then lost the starting job,” Mayock said. “And what I expect to see from Everett is that he’s got a live arm. He always has.

“And I fully expect to see him come out and show off his athleticism, show off his live arm. But more than anything, I think it’s got to be about meeting with teams.

“I think he’ll show enough physically that teams will be curious about him, but more than anything, it’s going to be about him looking guys in the eye and talking about his journey — ’cause it’s been a different kind of journey.

“And he’s got to convince people that he’s seriously interested in making this a career, that he’s not just dabbling in something and that he’s going to commit to something.”

Williams, two years removed from football by first an academic suspension in 2014 and then the NCAA’s denial to reinstate him in 2015, hardly lacks commitment. But his body of work is so incomplete, given that he’s now a defensive end and the last time he suited up for the Irish, he was a backup outside linebacker.

“At this point, he’s more of a curiosity than anything,” Mayock said “So he needs to be in the best shape of his life. I don’t know what he’s going to weigh in at, but there’s an infatuation in the NFL with height-weight-speed. And Ishaq was always a big, good-looking kid with some movement skills.

“If he can show up in great shape and run and move well, he puts himself back in the position. I think it’s less important to talk about being drafted and it’s more important to talk about getting in somebody’s camp with an opportunity.”


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell (6) celebrates an interception during the Notre Dame-Southern Cal football game on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

Particulars: Thursday at the Loftus Center

Participants: WR Chris Brown, WR Amir Carlisle, DT Sheldon Day, S Matthias Farley, WR Will Fuller, QB Everett Golson (Florida State), LB Jarrett Grace, C Matt Hegarty (Oregon), S Eilar Hardy (Bowling Green), C Nick Martin, DE Romeo Okwara, RB C.J. Prosise, CB KeiVarae Russell, S Elijah Shumate, LB Jaylon Smith, OT Ronnie Stanley, DE Ishaq Williams.