Senior Bowl presents big opportunities for six former Notre Dame players

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t impact the NFL’s pre-draft process until after the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis last year.

The draft preparation will have even more changes this year. The NFL Combine itself won’t host in-person workouts. Interviews with NFL teams and psychological testing will all be done online. In-person medical exams will be limited. Colleges will be asked to sort out pro days of their own.

The pandemic has impacted the annual showcase games for draft prospects as well. The East-West Shrine Bowl and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl were both canceled due to the pandemic. That’s left the Senior Bowl, which will be played Saturday in Mobile, Ala., and the less-heralded Hula Bowl, which will be played Sunday in Honolulu, as the biggest events before April’s draft.

But the spotlight is clearly on the Senior Bowl. Practices this week are being televised on ESPNU and recapped on the NFL Network before the latter broadcasts the game at 2:30 p.m. EST on Saturday.

That’s where Dane Brugler, draft analyst for The Athletic, is spending his week.

“The opportunity for players to have some one-on-one time and some face time this week in Mobile is going to be a huge opportunity,” Brugler said. “The Senior Bowl’s always important, because it’s the last time we really get to see these guys with pads and a helmet on. It’s also the first time we see a lot of the coaches get involved.

“First impressions mean a lot. The coaches have been focused on their season up until this point. Now they get really involved in the process. So this is a chance to make a big first impression, especially this year where opportunities are going to be far and fewer between compared to most years.”

Six former Notre Dame players are taking advantage of the opportunity at the Senior Bowl this week: quarterback Ian Book, defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji, offensive linemen Aaron Banks and Robert Hainsey and wide receiver Ben Skowronek. All six are members of the National Team, which is coached by the staff of the Miami Dolphins. The American Team is coached by the Carolina Panthers.

A seventh former Notre Dame player, left tackle Liam Eichenberg, previously accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl, but he’s no longer on the roster. Text messages from the Tribune to Eichenberg this week have gone unanswered.

Brugler ranks the 6-foot-6, 302-pound Eichenberg, who was a consensus All-American in 2020, the highest of the seven Notre Dame players who were set to participate this week. In his latest Top 100, Brugler ranked Eichenberg as the No. 46 prospect and the No. 7 offensive tackle in the 2021 draft class.

“I was really looking forward to seeing him in one-on-ones to see how he would do against speed on the edge,” Brugler said. “There’s nothing about him that necessarily makes you sit up in your seat. He’s just a very solid player all-around. He doesn’t have many weaknesses. He stays centered. He’s a guy who plays with his hands very well.

“But he’s not like a Ronnie Stanley, where he’s this big-time athlete who is going to hold up in space. So I was really looking forward to how he would do in one-on-ones against some of the speed at edge rusher down here.

“We won’t see that, but he’s put enough on tape that teams know exactly what he is. He’s a top-50 prospect in this draft, a guy who can play right tackle or left tackle and he’s going to start pretty early in his career.”

The other six former Irish players competing this week will have a chance to answer questions about their games in front of NFL personnel. These are the storylines worth tracking for each player this week.

QB Ian Book

The three-year starter at Notre Dame certainly put plenty of his ability on film on his way to winning the most games (30) in program history. But he still has a lot left to prove on the same team as quarterbacks Sam Ehlinger (Texas) and Feleipe Franks (Arkansas).

“It’s all about passing efficiency,” Brugler said. “We know how good he is with his feet. He has great mobility and is very instinctive on the move. But in terms of being a pocket passer and getting his timing down with his three- and five-step drops and working from the pocket consistently, that’s what scouts are going to be focused on.

“It can be tough when you’re dealing with all new receivers this week, guys that you’re not used to throwing to so the timing’s going to be off. It’s going to take a little bit. But by the time Thursday’s practice comes around, you’re hoping to see consistent play from him in terms of working from the pocket, being on time and throwing with good placement down the field.”

Brugler thinks the 6-0, 210-pound Book could be selected in a wide range of rounds in the draft.

“I think anywhere from third-to-seventh round, which is crazy,” Brugler said. “But from talking to different teams, there are some that think he could sneak into that third round and then others see him as a later-round pick. It just depends on what you’re looking at for the position.

“The consensus is that he’s going to be a backup in the NFL. I haven’t heard anyone saying that he’s going to be a starter, but they think he can be a solid backup. It comes down to different philosophies on when you draft a player like that.

“The Eagles drafted Jalen Hurts in the second round last year, which was two rounds earlier than most teams had him. Ian Book could have mostly fifth- and sixth-round grades around the league, but all it takes is one and the right opportunity for him to go third or fourth.”

DE Daelin Hayes

Hayes drew praise with some flashes in the first two days of practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. He won with strength and speed in pass rush reps and recorded a strip sack on Franks.

“Hayes is an all-around player,” Brugler said. “He can play in space. He can play on his feet. He was so raw when he got to Notre Dame. He’s really developed nicely. I still think he has yet to play his best football.”

The 6-4, 261-pound Hayes can prove this week that his impact on games can be measured beyond the stats he recorded this past season: 17 tackles, six tackles for a loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles, one interception and one fumble recovery.

Brugler projects Hayes as a fourth- or fifth-round pick and compared him to Alex Highsmith, a third-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers last year who totaled 48 tackles and two sacks as a rookie.

“There’s a lot you can do with him,” Brugler said.

DE Ade Ogundeji

The 6-4, 256-pound Ogundeji has versatility in a different way in that he could slide inside for more pass rushing opportunities, which he has in the first two practices.

“That inside-outside versatility is really going to help him,” Brugler said, “because you can kick him inside and reduce him on passing downs, let him rush over the B gap and use that length and speed to create movement. Both these guys are going to be mid-round picks and guys who are going to be rotational defensive linemen for a lot of years.”

Ogundeji’s measurements on Tuesday were interesting in two ways. He’s down 12 pounds from the 268 he was listed at on Notre Dame’s roster. And his arm length of 35 1/4 inches was the longest of any defensive lineman at the Senior Bowl.

“He’s so long,” Brugler said. “He’s a height-weight-speed guy. He’s a little stiff, but when he’s going in a straight line he can really go.”

OL Aaron Banks

Banks opted to not return to Notre Dame for a fifth season and a chance to bump outside at left tackle. That might not have changed his future position in the NFL though.

“It would have been great to see him at tackle and see how he would hold up on the edges,” Brugler said. “No question his best position is going to be at guard. The more college experience you have on the offensive line the better. The potential for helping himself was certainly there.”

But the 6-5, 338-pound Banks certainly established an expectation for himself in his previous two-plus seasons as a starter. He finished his career as a consensus All-American.

“He’s such a massive player,” Brugler said. “He takes up space. He does a nice job of staying square to rushers. He’s a large human being and he moves well. He’s not just a lumbering blocker out there. He enters the Senior Bowl as an early day-three pick and a guy who teams are optimistic about as he can step in and be a backup and then possibly more.”

OL Robert Hainsey

Hainsey’s future might be inside as well despite playing all four seasons at right tackle.

The 6-4, 302-pound Hainsey doesn’t have the ideal size for an NFL tackle, particularly with his 32-inch arms, which was on the shorter end of those at the Senior Bowl.

“Most see him inside as a guard/center prospect,” Brugler said. “He’s going to be used as a guard and a tackle here in Mobile during one-on-ones, so that will be interesting to see how he can hold up.

“Scouts know he’s a two-time captain and the makeup and everything that he offers is there. He’s being graded right now as a high-end backup with tackle-guard versatility, so we’ll see if what he does this week changes that.”

WR Ben Skowronek

The 6-3, 211-pound Skowronek didn’t fill up the stat sheet in his one season as a grad transfer at Notre Dame. He finished fourth on the team with 29 catches for 439 yards and a team-high five touchdowns. All five of those touchdowns came in two games against Pittsburgh and Boston College.

But his résumé from Northwestern counts too. That’s where he caught 110 passes for 1,417 yards and eight touchdowns in 43 games. If or when Skowronek gets drafted in the late rounds, what he’s able to do without the football will likely have played a role too.

“When you look at the totality of his career and his strengths as a player, it’s easy to like what he offers,” Brugler said. “He’s a good-sized athlete. He plays big in the red zone. He can win in contested situations.

“The thing that’s really going to help him is what he does away from the ball — whether it’s playing on special teams or as a blocker. He would just remove defenders from their feet. He’s not afraid to mix it up, and he always has that fearless demeanor to him.

“I think that’s something that will show this week and that will help him.”

WEDNESDAY PRACTICE CLIPS

Click here for clips from Tuesday's practice.

QB IAN BOOK

DE ADE OGUNDEJI

DE DAELIN HAYES

WR BEN SKOWRONEK

OL AARON BANKS

OL ROBERT HAINSEY

THURSDAY PRACTICE CLIPS

Skowronek was seen at practice with a walking boot on his right foot and crutches.

Former Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book has a chance to boost his NFL Draft stock this week at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Notre Dame defensive end Daelin Hayes, left, could become another mid-round pick in the NFL Draft like Khalid Kareem, right, was last season.

Six former Notre Dame players are playing in the Senior Bowl on the National Team. The final National Team practice will air Thursday on ESPNU at 12:30 p.m. EST. The Senior Bowl will be played Saturday at 2:30 p.m. on the NFL Network.

No. 9 – DE Daelin Hayes

No. 12 – QB Ian Book

No. 72 – OL Robert Hainsey

No. 73 – OL Aaron Banks

No. 81 – WR Ben Skowronek

No. 91 – DE Ade Ogundeji