With the yearly NFL Combine coming up this weekend in Indianpolis, a handful of former Notre Dame players will be taking their first steps towards their professional football careers while trying to impress NFL scouts, executives, and personnel on and off the field.
In all, Notre Dame will have seven former gridiron standouts in Indy this weekend – Manti Te’o, Tyler Eifert, Braxston Cave, Theo Riddick, Cierre Wood, Jamoris Slaughter, and Zeke Motta – while an 8th – Kapron Lewis Moore – was invited but is unable to attend due to the recovery from the knee injury he suffered in the first half of the BCS Championship Game.
Te’o and Eifert are the unquestioned headliners as both will be hoping to secure first round grades from the teams they talk to during the combine, but the other five former Domers on hand will have their chance to carve out their own niches in the NFL as well.
Manti Te’o – MLB
It has been an eventful off-season for Te’o since Notre Dame’s season came to a crashing end in Miami in early January. While the off the field drama will hang over Te’o’s head, the accomplishments that he had n the field this year will end up out weighing girlfriend-gate. At the NFL level, the biggest question for Te’o will be what defensive scheme does he project best for – a 4-3 or a 3-4? NFL.com compares Te’o to Demeco Ryans – an inside linebacker who struggled in a 3-4 scheme in Houston after thriving as the MIKE in a 4-3 defense.
- What he needs to do in Indy: Interviews will be key for Te’o this weekend. Not only will the off the field questions regarding the whole girlfriend hoax come up, but questions regarding his performance against Alabama will loom even larger. Te’o was the toast of the college football before the BCS Title game, but his performance against the Crimson Tide raised questions about his game that he will need to answer before a team will invest a first round pick on him.
- Current draft projection: 1st Round
While you will all most likely read about Eiefert forging his season senior for the NFL, Eiefert did indeed complete four years of school at Notre Dame and is merely heading to the NFL with a 5th year of eligibility available to him that he won’t be taking advantage of. That being said, Eiefert didn’t need a 5th year to prove to scouts his value. Most have Eifert as the top tight end in this year’s draft and he could end up outdoing his predecessors Kyle Rudolph, John Carlson, and Anthony Fasano by getting picked in the first round – a solid 40 time in Indianapolis ought to seal the deal.
- What he needs to do in Indy: Eifert needs to separate himself from Zach Ertz to lock up a first round selection If Efiert runs a good 40 time he should be a good bet as a first rounder which would make him the first Notre Dame tight end to be selected in the first round since one of UHND’s all-time favorites – Irv Smtih.
- Current draft projection: 1st Round
Zeke Motta had some big shoes to fill in 2012 by replacing 2012 1st Ro]und NFL Draft Pick Harrison Smith, and he did a more than OK job at replacing the ball hawking safety who spent his rookie year making plays for the Minnesota Vikings. In fact, Motta was one of the more unheralded players that made Notre Dame’s 12-0 regular season possible. While Motta does not possess the raw athleticism of Smith – and really, how many safeties do? – Motta made some big plays for the Irish secondary this year as the elder statesmen of a group that ended up featuring three first time starters after Slaughter’s injury. Motta is a big, physical safety who will need to find a home int he right scheme on the NFL level, but has the talents to be a standout special teams contributor from day one.
- What he needs to do in Indy: The knock on Motta is his range and speed so he will need to test well in the speed and agility drills. Motta will no doubt impress the teams he meets with his leadership and intelligence, but will need to ease the concerns with his athleticism. A good 40 time will boost Motta’s stock quite a bit.
- Current draft projection: 4th-5th round
One the mainstays on the offensive line for the Irish over the last four years, Braxston Cave leaves Notre Dame as a 4-year starter at center. Cave is a tough as nails lineman who will impress everyone with his strength numbers at the combine – in fact it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if Cave was one oft he top performers among the linemen in strength numbers. Cave could struggled in the agility drills, however, as he is not exactly flight of feet – even for an offensive lineman. The knock on Cave is that, despite his workout numbers, he can get overpowered at times and has a tough time fighting back. When Cave locks on and gets leverage, he is set, but if he gets a little off balance, he has struggle recovering. He won’t be able to do much to put those concerns to rest in Indy, but can impress with his workout.
- What he needs to do in Indy: Cave needs to knock his workouts out of the park and display the strength that we’ve all heard stories about out of the Notre Dame lockerroom over the past few seasons. Some of the stories of Cave’s performance in the weight room have reached urban legend type status so it should be fun to watch him in the bench press and other lifting drills.
Current draft project: Late round to undrafted free agent
Theo Riddick finally found a permanent home at running back in 2012 and by the end of the season, he was thriving as Notre Dame’s go-to back. Early on in the season, many (myself included) couldn’t figure out why Riddick was seeing more carries than Cierre Wood, but by season’s end, it was pretty clear. Riddick turned out to a be a great all around back for the Irish in 2012. The problem for Riddick at the NFL level is that he might not test that well in terms of 40 times and speed numbers. Riddick just simply does everything that you ask him to do well though and for that reason he will find a home in the NFL.
- What he needs to do in Indy: Riddick needs to really put up the best time he can in the 40. There are concerns over his top end speed and a slow 40 time will not do anything to ease them. Riddick also needs to make sure he excels in the areas where he should excel such as receiving drills where he can flash the skills that made Brian Kelly convert him to slot wide receiver in 2010.
- Current draft projection: Late round to undrafted free agent
Like Eieft, many will say that Wood is leaving Notre Dame early, but in reality, Wood is leaving on time. He is leaving a year of eligibility on the table, but he was a senior in 2012 just like Eifert. Unlike Eifert though, Wood could have potentially improved his draft stock by coming back to Notre Dame for another season. He lost his starting role to Riddick in the summer after being suspended for the first two games and never gained it back while showing some inconsistency.
- What he needs to do in Indy: Wood needs to make sure to turn in his best performance since he doesn’t have quite the on-field history to back up much other than a late round selection. His speed and athleticism though should allow him to test well and move up some boards. Interviews will be key for Wood as well as questions around his maturity have followed him throughout his time at Notre Dame – most notably following his two game ban to start the season.
- Current draft projection: 4th-6rh Round
Up until last week, Jamoris Slaughter was holding out hope that he would be able to return to Notre Dame for a 6th year after missing the final 9.5 games of his 5th season due to a torn Achilles suffered against Michigan State. Slaughter’s request, however, was denied by the NCAA and thus he begins his quest to continue his career at the next level. Slaughter moved around a bit for Notre Dame, but injuries seemed to slow him down even when he was “healthy” which caused him to never reach his full potential while with Notre Dame. If Slaughter can get, and stay healthy, he has a chance to be a special teams stalwart on the NFL level at least.
- What he needs to do in Indy: Slaughter needs to show that he is healthy – or least as healthy as he can be just five months after suffering the injury against Michigan State. That will be much easier said than done, but the more Slaughter can do, the more chances he has to catch the eye of a NFL team.
- Current draft projection: Late round to undrafted free agent.