'New' Notre Dame football program impresses Pro Day participants

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — They came to make second impressions, to build upon or even swap out their numbers from the NFL Scouting Combine earlier this month.

Defensive end Isaac Rochell’s lingering hamstring injury, his souvenir from the invitation-only run/jump/lift fest in Indianapolis, kept him from being much more than an observer, though, Thursday at Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones, meanwhile, was physically able to alter his résumé in front of the 54 NFL scouts and personnel types repping 27 teams, though to what extent, he’s still not sure.

The 6-foot-5, 310-pounder’s vertical leap (24.5 inches) was four inches better than what he produced in Indy, but his 40-yard dash time (5.47 seconds) was decidedly slower than the 5.33 he ran at the combine. He did log results in the three-cone drill (8.01 seconds), short shuttle (4.87) and standing broad jump (8 feet, 6 inches) for the first time, after passing on all three tests in Indy due to sore knees.

Linebacker James Onwualu had the best day of the six NFL Combine snubs, including a 4.73 best in the 40, a 36-inch vertical and 24 reps at 225 in the bench press, one shy of what Rochell put up and two more than Jones at the combine.

In the 2000s, only two NFL Combine non-invitees have gotten drafted, and both in 2007 — defensive lineman Derek Landri and defensive back Mike Richardson — though many others have ended up in camps and on rosters.

Onwualu also showed off his versatility by performing some defensive back drills. Afterward New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia chatted with Onwualu for several minutes.

Still, one or the other, Rochell or Jones, figures to be the next Notre Dame player selected in the 2017 NFL Draft (April 27-29 in Philadelphia) after quarterback DeShone Kizer — the magnet among ND’s 12 former players at Pro Day — and likely several rounds later than Kizer, whomever that turns out to be.

Yet the most indelible impressions the two were involved with this week back at their alma mater were the ones made on them.

Even half a semester later, this wasn’t the same Notre Dame.

Rochell got to meet with new Notre Dame director of football performance Matt Balis for the first time during his visit.

“I’m excited about all the changes,” the 6-foot-4, 290-pounder said of Balis and the six new full-time assistant coaches who have come aboard since Rochell played his final collegiate game in late November.

“I think everybody else is excited about it. I see everything moving in the right direction. You walk in the locker room, and it looks different — like you know immediately something’s different here. So it’s been interesting and cool being back.”

Jones had heard about the changes from his younger brother, Jamir, before experiencing them himself. Jamir is a sophomore-to-be linebacker and one of several dozen current Irish players who soaked in the Pro Day experience from the bleachers.

“(Jamir) tells me every day is Camp Kelly,” Jarron said, referring to a grueling once-a-year ritual that precedes spring practice. ‘But he said it’s making him better. He feels a lot better. I see the results. He’s huge right now.

“Things are a lot more intense. We’re being pushed, actually. That’s something we weren’t getting last year. We weren’t doing our work, the drills and stuff. People could just get through them. It wasn’t challenging. So I’m looking forward to what the season’s going to be.”

Jonas Gray was one of three former Irish players who came to Pro Day specifically to help give Kizer a larger target contingent to throw to. Otherwise it would have been only running back Tarean Folston and tight end Chase Hounshell, the latter of whom spent his final collegiate season at Ohio State.

Gray was joined by receiver Amir Carlisle, looking to make an NFL roster after getting cut last August by Arizona, and Corey Robinson, who retired from football last spring due to multiple concussions but still looks very much like he could play at a high level.

Gray, who intermittently moonlights as a standup comic as he looks for his next NFL job, quipped that Balis “sounds like a strength coach,” then perfectly imitated his gravelly voice.

In all seriousness?

“From what I’ve heard from every guy, it’s hard,” he said. “That’s how it should be. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be decent. You’re not supposed to have some hard days and some easy days.

“If you want to win a national championship and be the best team in the country — and that’s what guys come here for — it’s got to be hard every day, especially this time of year. I wish I had the knowledge back then about how big of a deal the offseason is. That’s everything.

“That prepares you to make a long run, especially at this time with the College Football Playoff and all of that and how every game matters. So it’s always got to be hard. It’s always got to be tough. I think they have that mindset now.”

Fleming reinventing himself

Outside linebacker Darius Fleming, originally drafted by the 49ers and later a part of a New England Patriots Super Bowl run, was among a handful of former Notre Dame players who came Thursday to show support to the Irish Pro Day participants.

Dallas Cowboys linebacker Jaylon Smith, Chicago Bears defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore, sports agent Kyle McCarthy and personal trainer Kerry Neal joined the 27-year-old Fleming as spectators of note at the Loftus Center.

Fleming is currently a free agent and hasn’t ruled out a return to the NFL as a linebacker, but he’s trying to give himself another avenue of re-entry — long snapper.

The 6-2, 255-pounder was a standout at the special teams craft while earning prep All-America honors as a linebacker at Chicago St. Rita. When he arrived at Notre Dame in 2008, then-head coach Charlie Weis seriously considered having him be ND’s No. 1 option at long snapper.

But Fleming was so advanced as an outside linebacker, Weis didn’t want to overload the freshman. So he made Fleming a contingency plan in case of injury.

Fleming is serious enough about coming back to the NFL as a long snapper, he’s enlisted the help of retired Chicago Bears long snapper Patrick Mannelly, who was drafted at the position in 1998 and spent 16 years in the NFL as one of the best in the profession.

Referendum on Rees?

You could see the culture shock on Jonas Gray’s face before he found the words to form an answer.

What’s it like seeing former teammate Tommy Rees coaching quarterbacks at ND instead of playing the position?

“It’s weird,” he said. “I’m still not over it right now. I’m like, ‘Oh, Tommy is the QB coach?’ But it’s cool, man.

“He was always a smart, sharp guy. And like coach (Brian) Kelly said, the players can relate to him. So it’s always a cool thing when a guy comes back and he can relate to players in terms of what they go through at the university.

“Being the quarterback at Notre Dame is a lot of pressure. Tommy knows that better than most guys. So it’s cool to have him and Ron Powlus here.”

Pro Day by the numbers

• Scott Daly, Long Snapper: Bench (20); 40 (5.16/5.14); Vertical (27); Broad jump (8-10/9-0); Short shuttle (4.67), 3-Cone (7.47).

• Tarean Folston, Running Back: Bench (20); 40 (4.75/4.8); Vertical (33.5); Broad jump (9-7/9-4); Short shuttle (4.31); 60 shuttle (11.88); 3-Cone (6.93).

• Jarron Jones, Defensive Tackle: 40 (5.47); Vertical (24.5); Broad jump (8-6); Short shuttle (4.87); 3-Cone (8.01).

• Cole Luke, Cornerback: Bench (11); 40 (4.64/4.66); Vertical (35.5); Broad jump (9-3, 9-5); Short shuttle (4.15); 60 shuttle (11.49); 3-Cone (6.82).

• James Onwualu, Linebacker: Bench (24); 40 (4.80/4.73); Vertical (36); Broad jump: (9-7, 9-11); Short shuttle (4.28); 60 shuttle (11.54); 3-Cone: (7.25).

• Avery Sebastian, Safety: Bench (18); 40 (4.96/4.89); Vertical (30.5); Broad jump: (9-3); Short shuttle (4.38); 60 shuttle (11.63); 3-Cone (7.15).

• Chase Hounshell, Tight End: Bench (19); 40 (5.05/5.01); Vertical (33); Broad jump (9-2/9-3); Short shuttle (4.4), 60 shuttle (11.78); 3-Cone (7.08).

Note: QB DeShone Kizer did only position drills on Thursday. Only Folston, Hounshell, Luke, Onwualu and Sebastian did everything.


Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Defensive tackle Jarron Jones runs drills during Notre Dame football Pro Day Thursday, March 23, 2017, inside the Loftus Sports Center in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN