Breaking down impending NFL decisions for Notre Dame's junior achievers

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The closer No. 14 Notre Dame and 16th-ranked LSU get to Monday’s Citrus Bowl date at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Fla., the more this matchup and the drama-filled buildup in the days leading up to it becomes about the 2018 season — for both teams.

The Tigers (9-3) arrived in Orlando on Thursday evening, two days after Notre Dame (9-3) showed up, apparently on the brink of separating with their first-year offensive coordinator, Matt Canada.

At least LSU head coach Ed Orgeron confirmed to the media that Canada would call the offensive plays on Monday, something that was far from a foregone conclusion before the team departed Baton Rouge, La.

Beyond that? No comment.

For ND, Thursday’s angle toward the future centered on four juniors who are considering wading into the 2018 NFL Draft pool.

Three of the four — defensive tackle Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te’von Coney and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown — deftly parroted the company line Thursday after practice that their decisions wouldn’t be made until after Monday’s Citrus Bowl, just as running back Josh Adams has done previously.

More accurately, their announcements regarding their decisions is actually what is being deferred in some cases. The deadline for underclassmen to declare for the draft is Jan. 15, exactly two weeks after the Citrus Bowl is played.

Since the NFL opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989, 14 true juniors from Notre Dame have made the leap, including six in the last four drafts and nine since 2010.

That does not include players like All-America guard Quenton Nelson, a senior who will leave this spring with a degree in hand and forgo his option to return to school for a fifth year.

The following is a look at how NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of breaks down the four juniors’ impending decisions and the risk/reward of returning to ND for the 2018 season:

Josh Adams

Running back; 6-2 225

Wright projects that Adams both should and will enter the 2018 draft.

“You can make a case, based on some of his film, that he’s probably a second-round talent,” Wright said of ND’s leading rusher, “but I think the durability factor is probably going to push him down a little bit, not to mention running backs just tend to drop.

“So I could see him sneaking into the back end of day 2, in third-round range, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he were available in rounds 4 or 5.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Wednesday after practice that Adams was showing the same burst that helped him run his way into the Heisman Trophy conversation, before a November fade.

“He’s got his speed back,” Kelly said. “He looks healthy. He’s running very effectively. I expect him to play really well in this game. I think the time off for him really helped him.”

Wright said when Adams is healthy, he projects as an earlier-round talent, but that Wright doesn’t see a scenario in which coming back to ND in 2018 makes sense.

“Even with a healthy and productive year, I really don’t know that gets you into the first round,” he said. “It’s just tougher these days.

“Maybe he makes himself into a second-round pick or fringe third-round pick, but I think the risk/reward factors is he’d probably be making the best decision to go pro this year, and especially at that position.”

Jerry Tillery

Nose guard; 6-7, 306

Wright projects that Tillery should return to ND for his senior season.

“He’s kind of a unique athlete at the position, and all I could think about watching him this year is this is what we were waiting for (former Irish nose guard) Jarron Jones to turn into, because Jarron Jones would have a game here, a game there, but never did it consistently.

“Jerry Tillery started to do it more consistently this year. He’s got a similar type of frame. He’s that big, long athlete. He could very easily play offensive tackle, too.”

Wright projects Tillery going as high as the second or third round in 2018 if he came out, largely because of his unique dimensions and the potential to build on this season’s consistency.

“I think NFL scouts are going to question why he was inconsistent up until this year,” Wright said. “They’re going to question is football his No. 1 priority? He’s kind of a renaissance man, I think, and has a lot of other interests. So that commitment and passion for the game, they’re going to want to analyze, but I think he has a lot to gain by going back for one more season in college.

“I think there are some first-round physical tools there. He made such great strides this year in that new defense. If he can make those type of strides one more time, he could be in that first-round conversation.”

Equanimeous St. Brown

Wide receiver; 6-5, 203

Wright projects St. Brown should return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

“He’s a guy that had a lot of hype coming into this year, and the numbers were down,” Wright said. “A lot of that had to do with the quarterback play, but I think he showed he has a ways to go.

“He needs to keep developing physically, getting stronger. I know at one time he was being talked about as a first-round pick, and I think he’s shown flashes of that first-round potential. But I don’t think he showed it consistently enough to go in the first round if he did come out.

“I think best case is he’d probably be a second- or third-rounder, but I think he has a lot to gain by going back and putting together one more big, consistent season with a more polished Brandon Wimbush.”

Te’von Coney

Inside linebacker; 6-1, 240

Wright projects Coney, ND’s leading tackler in 2017, should return to Notre Dame for his senior season.

“Another guy, like Tillery, who had a breakout season in that defense,” Wright said. “Just seemed to be making those impact, dynamic plays behind the line of scrimmage every time you turned around. He turned himself into a draftable prospect this year, in that if he did come out, he would be drafted.

“But if goes back and does it again, in an even bigger role with the guys they’re losing to graduation at that position, I think he could play himself into the early rounds.

“If he came out this year? Day 3, probably. So you’re talking rounds 4-5-6-7. Another strong year on that defense, rounds 2 or 3. He’s a little faster, a little more explosive than (senior) Nyles Morgan.”

Notre Dame wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown (6) is one of four Irish juniors, preparing for Monday's Citrus Bowl, who are strongly weighing the possibility of early entry into the NFL Draft. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)