The cons of pro potential for ascending Notre Dame football team

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Jerry Tillery hid behind the need to study for an Econometrics exam Tuesday night when he needed an excuse to squelch the white noise of Notre Dame’s status in the new College Football Playoff rankings.

Not so easy to fend off will be the burgeoning buzz about what his NFL future might look like.

And whether that process will unfold for the Irish junior nose guard sooner than later.

It’s the blessing and the curse that comes with a team that has rocketed from preseason unranked to the No. 3 position in the CFP poll (fifth in AP), with Wake Forest (5-3) coming to Notre Dame Stadium as the next on-field test for the Irish (7-1), on Saturday.

Heisman Trophy contender Josh Adams will deal with the benevolent potential distraction, too. So will wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and tight end Alizé Mack, to various extents.

All true juniors. All intriguing. All targets of agents, whether they welcome it or not.

In the 29 drafts since the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen for the first time, the Irish have had 14 true juniors walk through them. Six of those 14, including Cleveland Browns rookie QB DeShone Kizer, have come in the past four drafts.

That doesn’t count the many Irish players who got their degree, but left a fifth year of eligibility on the table, something center Sam Mustipher, for one, said Wednesday night that he won’t be doing.

“I love these guys, love this team,” he said. “I'll be back here next year."

Guard Quenton Nelson, a projected first-rounder next spring, is the only senior with a fifth-year option who so far is definitely coming out.

“I actually have Nelson as the highest-rated offensive line prospect on my board, ahead of all the tackles,” said analyst Scott Wright of “You usually don’t see guards go as high as he will, but he’s a special, elite talent.”

Wright projects Tillery as a second- or third-rounder if he were to come out early for next spring’s NFL Draft. ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. rates him as the sixth-best defensive lineman in the draft pool.

Does Tillery think about it at all?

“No,” the 6-foot-7, 306-pound Shreveport, La., product said Wednesday.

However, he said he would consider an early entry into the NFL Draft, but wouldn’t ponder it “until the time is right.”

Grad senior Mike McGlinchey, a projected first-rounder next spring, knows those around pro prospects don’t care about your decision timetable. McGlinchey first declared to the media on Oct. 5, 2016, that he would return to Notre Dame for his fifth year in 2017.

“I thought I was pretty clear,” he said Wednesday. “People trying to make money off of you or people trying to benefit off what you’re doing, they don’t really give a s--- about what your wants and desires are, whether you’re trying to put it to bed or not.

“It’s a dangerous game with those kinds of things. I definitely didn’t manage it the way that I wanted to, the way that I should have last year. Not so much with the agents stuff. That’s fine. You can control that.

“It was more with the expectations that come along with being a guy who’s expected to be a first-round pick or a (coveted) NFL player. I struggled with that. It’s something that you’ve got to say, ‘Screw that, it doesn’t matter.’ You control what you can control.”

McGlinchey said he doesn’t see any of the ND seniors with fifth-year options or the juniors wrestling with those same demons or becoming distracted by the process.

“It also helps that we have something to strive for on this team right now, (as opposed to) being 2-5 or 2-6 or whatever we were when I made that announcement last year,” he said.

“I really haven’t said much to anybody. If they asked me, then I’d be happy to help them out, but that’s something for them and their families to figure out. I’d obviously say something if I thought it was affecting the way they go about being a teammate or their play on the field. But, like I said, I haven’t seen any of that.

“The guys are very, very focused on the task at hand. And whatever happens when the smoke clears, that’s what’s going to happen. But there’s a lot of football to play right now, and I think that’s been a huge advantage for us, just focusing on moving forward and keeping our process at hand.”

Here’s a breakdown of where Wright projects the most draft-ready juniors on the team beyond Tillery:

• On Josh Adams: “He’s had an incredible year, and I think he’s in a position now where he should come out,” Wright said. “I don’t think he’s going to be a first-round pick, but I think he can be a day 2 pick, a second- or third-rounder.

“With running backs, you only have so many carries in your body. It’s hard to argue against cashing in and striking while the iron is hot. So I think we’re going to see him in this draft.”

• On Equanimeous St. Brown: “He’s not necessarily getting the opportunities to show all of what he’s capable of this year, just because Brandon Wimbush isn’t as developed of a passer yet,” Wright said. “But at the same time, there’s not a clear-cut wide receiver in this draft.

“For me right now Calvin Ridley from Alabama is the No. 1 guy, but he’s probably not an overall top-10 pick, so there’s opportunity for a guy like St. Brown. If he came out, he’d probably be a top 50 pick.”

• On Alizé Mack. “I think he’s been a little disappointing to this point,” Wright said. “Early on, he looked a little rusty, struggled with some drops. He’s starting to round into form and starting to play up to the obvious talent level.

“Tight end is a position where you don’t have the obvious standout this year. I think you’re still talking far more about potential than production. And based on what he’s done so far this year, it would probably behoove him to go back for another year and really shake off the rest of that rust and show what he’s truly capable of.”

Three players who have played their way into the draft conversation this fall, according to Wright, are grad senior tight end Durham Smythe, senior (with a fifth year) rover Drue Tranquill, and junior cornerback Shaun Crawford — the first two now day 3 considerations (rounds 4-7), Crawford not likely to consider an early entry this cycle.

“Success on the field helps boost players’ draft stock,” Wright said. “There’s probably a certain degree of you want to bring in players from successful programs. You’ve had a lot of exposure to them. You’ve seen them play on big stages.”

The trick is to not fall off the stage when the attention ratchets up.

“I think part of balancing yourself and maturing as a football player is being able to manage the expectations, because expectations are a good thing,” McGlinchey said.

“It means you’ve done something for people to want to see things out of you, but when they get overwhelming or you let them affect the way you think or the way you approach the game, that’s when you get in trouble.”

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery (99) takes down Southern California QB Sam Darnold (14) during ND's 49-14 rout on Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)