Notre Dame's Troy Pride Jr. looking to make a run at history as NFL Combine kicks off

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Troy Pride Jr. made himself into an ascending player on NFL Draft boards by attacking the perceived weaknesses in his game at last month’s Senior Bowl showcase.

Now the former Notre Dame cornerback gets to play to his strengths, most notably speed.

The NFL’s invitation-only, mass audition — the NFL Scouting Combine — kicks off Monday in Indianapolis, with the first assigned position groups — wide receivers, tight ends and quarterbacks — arriving and going through orientation on Sunday.

The signature event, for fans anyway, is the 40-yard dash, though it’s certainly not insignificant to the NFL scouts, coaches, and draft decision-makers in attendance. That’s especially true in Pride’s position group, the last to arrive and test in Indy.

He and former Irish safeties Alohi Gilman and Jalen Elliott will go through their physical testing on Saturday (bench press) and next Sunday (everything else) at Lucas Oil Stadium. Tight end Cole Kmet, defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, running back Tony Jones Jr., and wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke complete the nine-man Irish contingent.

Only five teams will be represented by more players than Notre Dame’s nine: national champ LSU (16), Michigan (11), Ohio State (11), Alabama (10) and Georgia (10). A total of 337 players received invites.

There’s no consensus at the moment about which player is ND’s top prospect for the April 23-25 draft, to be staged this year in Las Vegas. All but Okwara, the consensus top prospect among the Irish going into the 2019 season, are in a position to help themselves.

Okwara told the Tribune recently he’ll be limited in the physical testing to just the bench press, as he continues his recovery from a broken fibula suffered Nov. 9. His plan is to perform the other tests at Notre Dame’s Pro Day, tentatively scheduled for April 1.

Three of the four players who participated in the Senior Bowl — Claypool, Elliott and Pride — carry significant momentum into the combine.

Pride, a former All-Atlantic Coast Conference sprinter for the Irish track and field team, doesn’t just want to make an impression. He’s bent on making history.

“I’m always going to hold myself to the highest level, so my goal is 4.2,” Pride said, as in 4.2 seconds in the 40. “I’ve always trained for that aspect. I’ve always wanted to be on that short list of individuals that has done that.”

Actually, among Notre Dame players since 2010, that list doesn’t exist yet.

Just three Irish players have run 4.4 or better at their respective combines and/or Pro Days, led by wide receiver Will Fuller (4.32) in 2016. The others are cornerbacks Darrin Walls (4.39 in 2011) and Bennett Jackson (4.40 in 2014).

In the bigger picture, former Washington wide receiver John Ross holds the NFL Combine record in the 40 at 4.22 seconds, set in 2017. Official combine records have been kept since 2006.

University of Minnesota product Jalen Myrick has the fastest verified time among cornerbacks, with a 4.28 clocking at the 2017 combine.

Pride said on ND Insider’s Pod of Gold podcast that he ran in the 4.2s last spring during team testing.

Draft analyst Scott Wright of said Pride is expected to run the 40 in 4.35 seconds. And if that were the case, it wouldn’t likely boost his draft standing further.

“It’s kind of baked into the cake,” Wright said.

But a sub-4.3 40?

“That would be great for him,” Wright said.

Per Wright, Pride pushed his draft range from rounds 3-5 to a projected ceiling of round 2 and a worst-case scenario of round 3 by doing things in the Senior Bowl practices and game that he didn’t do consistently during the 2019 season.

Some of the in-season shortcomings may have come from ND’s need to shift Pride away from his familiar field cornerback position into the boundary, where speed isn’t as important as physicality. Pride admitted the boundary position was challenging, but he took responsibility for not adjusting his techniques more quickly.

“So going into the Senior Bowl, the questions were: Could he make plays on the ball and be a playmaker?” Wright said. “And I think he really showed well in both of those regards.”

Added Pride, “I believe the preparation that I had going into that week and that mindset that I took to make a name for myself helped to just up my competitive level and make me ready for a stage like that, truly.”

If Pride does go in round 2, as Pro Football Focus’ recent two-round mock projected (to the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs, no less), it would be the earliest a Notre Dame cornerback has been drafted since Bobby Taylor in 1995.

That was three years before Pride was born.

Kmet, ND’s lone true junior early entry, is the trending pick to be the first Irish player taken in the draft, but his combine testing must sync up with his game tape.

He also would have been eligible for the Major League Baseball Draft in June — and conceivably still could be, depending on his contract language and his desire.

The hard-throwing, left-handed pitcher compiled a 2.89 ERA in 18 2/3 innings, primarily in relief, before he was shut down for the balance of the season late last March with left elbow stiffness. He struck out 27 and walked three.

The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Kmet threw 40 1/3 innings for Notre Dame as a freshman.

According to baseball insiders, he’s still very much on the radar of baseball scouts and national crosscheckers.

Kmet recommitted to baseball for this spring and for football at Notre Dame in 2020, back on Nov. 16, However, he changed his mind after a season in which he caught 43 passes for 515 yards and six TDs, despite missing the opening two games of the season with a broken collarbone.

“I don’t think there’s a defined pecking order at tight end yet,” said Wright, who has Kmet penciled in as the draft’s No. 1 tight end for the time being. “Workouts might be one of those areas that helps separate that top tier. That will be important for him, and then just the medicals. The durability is a question mark.

“But it’ll be interesting to see how he runs and how he tests in the athletic drills.”

Former Notre Dame cornerback Troy Pride Jr. (5) has had plenty to smile about during the pre-draft process this winter.
Tight end Cole Kmet is one of nine Notre Dame players invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, which kicks off Monday in Indianapolis.

What: An invitation-only, mass audition for the NFL Draft for 337 college prospects.

When: Monday through next Sunday, including interviews with teams, weigh-ins and measurements, physical and Wonderlic personnel testing and medical checks.

Where: Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Notre Dame contingent: Tight end Cole Kmet, wide receivers Chase Claypool and Chris Finke, running back Tony Jones Jr., defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara, cornerback Troy Pride Jr., and safeties Jalen Elliott and Alohi Gilman.