Notre Dame's Drue Tranquill rising in Senior Bowl showcase

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

The whispers that seemed kind of absurd a few months ago are becoming louder and more grounded in something other than conjecture.

“I think there’s a chance Drue Tranquill gets drafted ahead of Te’von Coney,” said NFL Draft analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com.

The actual draft is still three months away — April 25-27 in Nashville, Tenn. — but one of the premier pre-draft showcases is this week, in Mobile, Ala.

And the practices leading up to Saturday’s Reese’s Senior Bowl at that city’s Ladd-Peebles Stadium (2:30 p.m. EST; NFL Network) are often every bit as telling, if not more, than the invitation-only all-star game itself.

And that’s where the 6-foot-2, 228-pound Tranquill has been ascending in the pro scouts’ eyes, while his former Notre Dame linebacker sidekick, Coney (6-1, 244), treads water as he tries to prove he’s more than a throwback player.

“Five, 10 years ago, Coney probably would have been a more coveted prospect and Tranquill would have been more of an afterthought,” said Wright via telephone from Mobile. “I just think that with the way the pro game is going, you need your linebackers to have that range and ability to play in space.

“That’s not Coney’s forte. He’s better in the box, playing downhill. He’s strong. He’s tough. He’s powerful. He’s got some pop. But he’s going to have to show the athleticism to drop into coverage and do the things that today’s game requires. Tranquill has shown that.”

Tranquill, Coney and former Irish running back Dexter Williams will all suit up for the North squad against the South on Saturday. Irish All-America defensive tackle Jerry Tillery was invited and declined a Senior Bowl invite because of an undisclosed injury.

Tight end Alizé Mack was invited and accepted, but fourth-year juniors (which Mack is considered) must have their degrees in hand in December. And Mack wasn’t able to pull it off, so he was scratched from the roster.

“He needed this week,” Wright said of Mack, an enigma much of his career but whose 36 catches (for 360 yards and three TDs) in 2018 were the most by an Irish tight end since Tyler Eifert garnered 50 in an All-America season in 2012.

“Mack could have shined on the field. I think he clearly would have been the most talented tight end here, But he needed this week beyond the field, too —to get around these decision-makers and scouts and answer some questions they have about him. Instead maybe he raised some more.”

Tranquill continues to erase questions — about two ACL surgeries, about playing three different positions in the past three years. Actually, the latter has made him more valuable.

Wright sees Tranquill as an NFL outside linebacker long term, but the Fort Wayne, Ind., product was playing inside linebacker — his 2018 position — in Senior Bowl practices early in the week.

“Tranquill, in the very first practice, had already taken control of that defense,” Wright said. “He was getting people lined up, pointing things out.

“You could see all the intangibles to go along with some pretty good speed. I could see both Tranquill and Coney going in the round 4-to-5 range.”

Williams, a one-dimension back going into 2018, continues to show off just how far he’s come in the past year in rounding out his game. To go along with his explosive running style, the 5-11, 215-pounder has been impressive in catching the ball out of the backfield and blocking in blitz-pickup situations.

In fact, on Thursday the Senior Bowl named him practice player of the week at running back.

“I think he has a chance to go in the first 100 picks, rounds 2 or 3,” Wright said. “Running back is a position with a lot of competition. There’s a lot of underclassmen that came out, but there’s a lot to like about Dexter Williams.”

Dissecting the decisions

Of the six Irish players with remaining eligibility who strongly considered early entry into the 2019 NFL Draft, the only baffling one in Wright’s eyes was the one made by wide receiver Miles Boykin.

Boykin — a senior with a fifth-year option — Mack, and true junior cornerback Julian Love were the three who left early. Defensive ends Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem and wide receiver Chase Claypool all elected to return.

“I think Boykin is going to struggle to get drafted,” Wright said of ND’s leading receiver in 2018. “Obviously the concerns people are going to have about him is: Can he separate? Does he have the speed?

“We know he’s got an impressive big body, but to make sure he’s going to get drafted, he’s going to have to perform well in the predraft process. It’s still early and we’re still gathering information, but I would say right now that Miles Boykin projects as an undrafted free agent.”

Of the players who elected to remain at ND for 2019, Wright says Okwara stands to benefit the most.

“He certainly had a breakout year, and there’s a lot to like about Okwara’s game,” Wright said. “But the defensive line is the strength of this draft, especially edge pass-rushers. So if he had come out, he might have gone early and he might have been in a dog fight.

“I think he made a great long-term decision. It gives him another year to develop more physicality. And if he can build on what he did this year, the sky’s the limit for a long athlete like that who can get after the quarterback.”

Bars rising

Alex Bars hasn’t played in a competitive football game since Sept. 29. And even though the former Irish offensive guard is ahead of schedule in his recovery from two torn knee ligaments (ACL and MCL), he might not be back to 100 percent until June.

With each passing week, though, the injury seems to be becoming less relevant and his long-term potential seemingly overriding the long rehab.

“Scouts and decision-makers are looking at what a healthy Alex Bars would be,” Wright said. “The way he was playing when he got hurt, he was a second- or third-rounder.

“Because of everything else he has going for him — the pedigree, having played for Harry Hiestand, Quenton Nelson’s recommendation, the success of Notre Dame linemen in recent drafts — I think he’s still in that 3-5 round range.

“He’s a guy to watch. He could be a real sleeper, a real value on draft day.”

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) breaks up a pass intended for Clemson’s Garrett Williams (44) in the Cotton Bowl, Dec. 29 at Arlington, Texas.