Notre Dame's Dexter Williams running his way up NFL Draft boards

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

What seemed, just a few weeks ago, like a trick question, now is a straightforward one with a straightforward answer.

Does Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams have an NFL future?

“He’s very much on their radar now,” said draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com. “He’s helped himself a lot this year, more so than any other Notre Dame prospect. That’s saying something, because a good season like this kind of lifts all boats, or whatever the saying is.

“So most of the Notre Dame prospects are seeing their stock take an uptick — but no one more so than Dexter Williams.”

The 5-foot-11, 215-pound senior from Orlando, Fla., and the third-ranked Irish (10-0) head to the Bronx for more pressing matters, specifically a Shamrock Series date with No. 12 Syracuse (8-2), Saturday at Yankee Stadium. Kickoff is 2:30 EST, and NBC has the telecast.

The 2019 NFL Draft, meanwhile, is April 25-27 in Nashville, Tenn.

“I was even talking to somebody several weeks ago, who said they had heard top 100, which would maybe be second or third round,” Wright said of Williams.

“I’m not ready to go that far yet, but he has got himself in the draft, and I think middle rounds is not overzealous. Projecting running backs is always a little tricky. Those guys do tend to drop a little bit in the draft.

“But best-case scenario I would say round 3. Worst-case scenario, I would say round 5. But the arrow is definitely pointing up.”

Coming into the season, Williams had a flashy 6.5 yards-per-carry career average, but very little context to make it relevant.

He had never carried the ball more than eight times in a game or 39 times in a season during his first three years on campus. He had a modest six career receptions for 29 yards, with a long of eight yards.

And he had baggage — on the field, off the field. He began the season with a four-game university-imposed suspension.

The player who scored on a 45-yard TD run the first time he touched the ball this season, who is on pace to rush for more than 1,000 yards this season despite the missed time, and who has scored a team-high 10 TDs has little resemblance to the chronically inconsistent player he used to be.

He heads into the Syracuse game coming off a career-high 202 yards rushing on 20 carries and two TDs in a 42-13 waxing of Florida State and the distinction of being the first player to crack the 200-yard rushing mark against a Seminole defense in 36 seasons.

“I think he’s put himself in terrific position to be at the Senior Bowl (the premier NFL pre-draft showcase),” Wright said. “And if he can work out well and run well at the NFL Combine, he should continue that momentum.

“But right now he’s one of the hotter prospects in the country.”

The early book on Book

Irish junior quarterback Ian Book’s seven college starts, particularly the six this season, have created a buzz and some favorable early impressions for a player who is technically draft-eligible but has two seasons of college eligibility and little incentive at this point to give them up.

“When you perform as well as he has for such a successful team, it’s going to get you noticed,” Wright said. “There are going to be some physical deficiencies there in terms of the size (6-foot, 203 pounds) and maybe the arm strength, but he’s definitely being evaluated.

“Full disclosure, I haven’t looked at him through that lens yet. He’s got a lot of time left for that, but I think he’s going to end up being more of a day-three type of prospect (rounds 4-7), just because of those physical shortcomings. But if he remains on this trajectory, he has a chance to play on the next level.

Book leads the nation in completion percentage (.745) and is fourth in pass efficiency (170.0), a school-record pace in both statistical categories.

“You look at the guy starting for the 49ers, Nick Mullens (6-1, 215). You look at Case Keenum (6-1, 215), having a nice career. There are plenty of examples of guys that were questioned, because they didn’t have those physical tools and they overcame them by doing the little things with intangibles.

“I think Book has those types of intangibles to overcome that. So if he keeps going at this pace, he’s going to have a shot to play at the next level.”

Whither Wimbush?

Notre Dame senior QB Brandon Wimbush will have plenty of attractive options in and out of football after the season ends.

He made his 16th career start Saturday night against Florida State, in place of an injured Book, and nudged his record as a starter to 13-3 with ND’s 29-point victory.

But Wright says if Wimbush is serious about an NFL career, he should consider switching positions for his final college season in 2019.

“Look how it helped Braxton Miller,” Wright said of the former Ohio State QB-turned-receiver. “I think Braxton Miller was a much more explosive athlete, but I think switching positions would allow Wimbush not only to get a head start on developing those skills he would need at a new position, but it would give teams tape on him.

“They would be able to evaluate instead of speculating. The question is what would it be — running back or wide receiver?

Junior achievers

Sixteen true juniors from Notre Dame have entered the NFL Draft since the league opened its doors to underclassmen in 1989. Eight have come in the past five draft cycles, including wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and running back Josh Adams last spring.

The most likely to give that strong consideration in 2019 among ND’s current juniors, per Wright, is cornerback Julian Love.

“Love is an interesting one, just because speed is a question mark, and I kind of compare him to a guy from last year, Josh Jackson from Iowa. Jackson was a mid-second round pick to the Packers (pick 45 overall).

“He was talked about at one point as a top 15, top 20 overall pick. Just didn’t have that speed and explosiveness, which pushed him down the board a little bit. But like Love, he’s a playmaker. If Love runs well, it would make his decision even more interesting.”

Wright said, while junior defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem are having breakout seasons, both would benefit by staying at ND another year.

Quick hits

• Wright rates defensive tackle Jerry Tillery as Notre Dame’s top draft prospect at the moment.

• Although, linebacker Te’von Coney shows up in a lot of mock drafts as a first-rounder, Wright says ND’s leading tackler projects as a third-rounder in his view, because he hasn’t improved appreciably in his pass-coverage skills.

• Fellow linebacker Drue Tranquill, in his first season as an inside linebacker, is ascending because of his coverage skills.

• Tight end Alizé Mack is another riser, with Wright projecting him as a second- or third-round pick and climbing.

• Wright said both center Sam Mustipher and injured offensive guard Alex Bars will benefit from how well 2018 first-rounders and former offensive line teammates Mike McGlinchey and Quenton Nelson have fared as rookies.

Despite Bars suffering two torn knee ligaments in September, Wright projects him as a player who will get drafted between the third and fifth rounds.

Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams (2) throws up two fingers as he runs for a touchdown during the Florida State-Notre Dame NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 10, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

WHO: No. 3 Notre Dame (10-0) vs. No. 12 Syracuse (8-2)

WHEN: Saturday, 2:30 p.m. (EST)

WHERE: Yankee Stadium; New York

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN (101.5 FM)

LINE: Notre Dame by 10 1/2