Jalen Elliott and three Notre Dame teammates stage a do-it-yourself pro day

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

April 1, aside from its traditional reputation, was supposed to be about second chances and bringing some substance to dreams for Jalen Elliott.

So when Notre Dame’s Pro Day showcase, scheduled for that day, became a casualty of the COVID-19 global pandemic, the former Notre Dame safety and three former Irish football teammates concocted a do-it-yourself version on Thursday.

The positive feedback that’s rolled in from NFL scouts and coaches the past few days naturally centered on a dramatically revised 40-yard dash time for Elliott, from the 4.80 recorded at the NFL Combine on March 1 to 4.54 and 4.56 showings at the Notre Dame rugby fields.

He and defensive end Julian Okwara and cornerbacks Donte Vaughn and Troy Pride Jr. also scored big points for their ingenuity in setting up a makeshift, pre-draft NFL audition. Others, such as defensive ends Khalid Kareem and Jamir Jones, also have done taped workouts recently but away from campus, as NFL personnel are banned from traveling to pro days and prospects are unable to take in-person visits to NFL teams.

“We can’t always control the situation that we’re in,” Elliott said via telephone on Tuesday, “but I think that I made the best of the situation. And I’m going to continue to work regardless of what the circumstances are.”

The end game remains the 2020 NFL Draft, still on schedule to be held April 23-25, though in a much more virtual form than usual.

Elliott, Okwara and Pride are three of the seven Notre Dame products expected to be selected during the three-day, seven-round draft. Vaughn is among a handful of former Irish players hoping to impress enough to find a backdoor into an NFL training camp as undrafted free agents.

The four ND players staged the combine-style testing Thursday at the rugby fields, which include a fully functional, marked-off football field. Initially, some members of the ND strength and conditioning staff had hoped to help out with the impromptu event.

But as more information about how the virus spreads came to the surface, those coaches elected to stay home, and some local trainers filled in. Matt Freeman of Irish Sports Daily volunteered to record the session, and copies were sent to various NFL teams by the players’ agents.

“We just thought it would be a good chance to right some wrongs and just show that we’ve been putting the work in,” said Elliott, most likely a day three pick (rounds 4-7).

Okwara probably has the most at stake.

The 6-foot-4, 252-pound defensive end was considered a likely first-round draft choice before the season started. But a statistically underwhelming 2019 run and a broken fibula that ended his ND career on Nov. 9 both created uncertainty, if not a stock drop.

Testing well in things like the bench press, 40-yard dash, vertical jump and standing broad jump figured to mitigate some of the doubts, but Okwara wasn’t cleared to run — or jump — until mid-February. So the only testing he was able to do at the invitation-only NFL Combine in Indianapolis a couple of weeks later was the bench press.

Okwara’s 27 reps at 225 were good enough for a tie for 10th-best among the 38 defensive linemen at the combine who performed in the bench press, and fifth among defensive ends.

His trump card figured to be the 40, and Thursday he ripped off an unofficial time of 4.60 seconds. If that turns out to be the verified time, it would match the best time run by a defensive lineman at the combine this year — NC State’s James Smith-Williams.

Verifying the taped 40, though, is subject to interpretation, Elliott figures. On the field, he was told he had a time of 4.5 flat.

“I wanted to continue to get second opinions,” the 6-foot, 205-pound former ND captain said. “I wanted to ask my trainers and my strength coaches, who would time it like an NFL scout would if they watched it on film.

“The numbers they kept coming up with were 4.54 and 4.56. So those are the two numbers I put on my video.”

The 4.8 at the combine, Elliott said, was in part due to not being 100 percent physically at the time. He had been experiencing a tight lower back and tight hamstrings and tried to push through it.

“And when you’re running the 40, that’s not something you want to do, because the results won’t be great for you,” he said. “I learned from that. I’m a competitor. But being able to be healthy and being able to get a little more work in really helped me.

“We make no excuses for the stuff that we put on film, but at the end of the day, I knew that wasn’t my true speed. A lot of coaches knew that too, but some didn’t. I couldn’t wait to show it.”

Being in South Bend to perform at some sort of Pro Day was planned out early, before the stay-at-home recommendations became stay-at-home orders.

“Early on, there was talk that there was going to be some kind of filmed Pro Day, so I wanted to make sure I was back here and safe,’’ Elliott said. “So I just stayed in my apartment, and then all I had to do when it was time was to drive to school.”

And put in work.

The four Irish players all live in separate residences, but they’re in sync each day in terms of working out.

“It’s an everyday thing where we get up together, either go lift or go run,” Elliott said. “Just trying to keep each other in it — stay mentally strong, stay physically strong in a time where we don’t really know what’s going on.

“We have people around who are very willing to help, and we’ve been able to find some gyms where we can go in very small groups.

“And we’re being very smart about how we go in and lift, how we wipe stuff down and wash our hands. Get our lift in and be able to go to the rugby fields on campus, which are just open, to get our runs in and get our field work in.”

What he hasn’t figured out yet is where he’ll watch the draft. His hope is to eventually be able to drive home to Richmond, Va., and take it in with his parents and three younger siblings.

“I’ve been around a lot of people,” Elliott said, “and understanding that the virus doesn’t always show symptoms, I don’t want to bring that back to my family.

“I’m trying to stay smart about it. We’re going to make the decision that’s best for us. And if that means I can’t go back and celebrate it with them in person, we’ll figure out a way to do that in a different way.”

Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott goes through workout drills March 1 during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Notre Dame’s Jalen Elliott (21) brings down Duke’s Jalon Calhoun (5) during the Nov. 9, 2019 game at Wallace Wade Stadium in Durham, N.C.