Notebook: Sizing up the pro talent in the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a day when NFL teams had to cut their rosters to 53 players, scouts from those teams were already out and about looking for more talent for future seasons.

From a pure pro talent standpoint, in the 43rd rendition of the Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry, staged Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, the team with the edge was … well both.

“Michigan has the better high-end prospects,” said NFL draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “Notre Dame doesn’t have anyone on the level of (Michigan defensive lineman) Rashan Gary.

“And you could argue cornerback Lavert Hill at this point would be taken earlier than anyone on the Irish roster. But things can and will change. and Notre Dame certainly has quantity on its side. I’m counting 10 players on the NFL radar to start the season.

“And that doesn’t count players who have eligibility beyond this season.”

Representatives from nine NFL teams and the Saskatchewan Roughriders of the Canadian Football League took in No. 12 ND’s clash with Michigan.

The NFL reps on hand were from the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, L.A. Chargers, New Orleans Saints, Philadelphia Eagles, San Francisco 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Tennessee Titans.

Here are Wright’s impressions of what they might have seen.

ND’s top prospects: Two players who strongly considered early entry in 2018 came back to school in part to enhance their draft appeal — middle linebacker Te’von Coney and defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

“I think based on the way the draft works, the way the demand is for certain positions, Tillery has the better shot to go first.

“He’s what you look for at that position. He’s big. He’s athletic. He’s got a lot of experience. and if he continues to make strides like he did last year, he could be the player everyone wanted Jarron Jones to be.”

For Coney, despite elite production, Wright said there are questions about how his speed, his range and his pass-coverage ability projects to the NFL level.

“It’s not like a Manti Te’o situation with (his 40 yard dash time),” Wright said. “But those kinds of players are kind of being phased out in the NFL.

“They’re looking for linebackers who can run with running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. That would probably be the question with Coney, but I’d say right now both of them would project in the day 2 range. That’s round 2 and 3.”

Sleeper prospect: Grad senior tight end Nic Weishar, per Wright, but the career reserve would have to push for more playing time, with Alizé Mack and Cole Kmet ahead of him.

“Maybe just because of the tradition of the school at that position helps, “ Wright said, “because it seems like every tight end they have that starts for them ends up going to the NFL.

“I think there’s some talent there. He can be that big jump ball deep threat in the red zone, so maybe he emerges. Then again, if he doesn’t step up, he’s not a draftable prospect. He’s a guy on the fringe right now who could go one way or another.”

Offensive line legacy: The run of four Irish offensive lineman to be selected in the first round of the past five drafts, including two last spring, won’t likely have a sequel.

That’s not to say center Sam Mustipher and offensive guard Alex Bars aren’t highly regarded.

“Mustipher is one of the top senior centers in this draft,” Wright said. “The problem is there are usually only about seven centers taken in each draft in total. and only 2 1/2 are in the early rounds, 1 1/2 in the middle rounds.

“So if you’re the fourth-best center, that probably only equates to a fourth- or fifth-round pick. I see Mustipher as more of a day 3 guy (round 5-7).

“I see Bars at this point as a day 3 guy, too. He’s not the physical specimen Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey is, but then again he’s a three-year starter, been coached well. He’s got a lot going for him as well.”

Moving up: Linebacker Drue Tranquill moved from rover to insider linebacker. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, size is becoming less of an issue. His rover skill set at an inside linebacker position is opening some eyes.

“We talk about Coney and coverage and playing in space and can he move sideline to sideline, well that’s the strength of Tranquill,” Wright said. “He kind of is what teams are looking for.

“He’s got some medical issues, and I still think he’s a day 3 guy, but I think he has a better chance in this day and age of going higher than five, 10 years ago, just because of that versatility.”

Underclass intrigue: Wright hasn’t done a full evaluation yet of the draft-eligible players on ND’s team with remaining college eligibility beyond this season, but cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Chase Claypool jump out at him at first glance.

“When you have that kind of production on the ball that Love did, that’s impressive. Twenty pass breakups last season? It looks like a typo. There’s work to do, but if he can cine anywhere close to doing that again, you’ll see him get a lot of attention.

“I think Chase Claypool is going to play in the NFL even if he never plays a down as a wide receiver,” Wright said. “He’s that good of a special teamer. He coud make a roster based on just that. and if he can have a breakout year on offense as a pass catcher, that would enhance his value even more.

Notre Dame’s Jerry Tillery, center, celebrates a big stop with teammates against Michigan Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium.

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