Jeff Risdon, DLD Editor
Rutgers and Notre Dame will face off in Yankee Stadium in one of the more intriguing December bowl games. Last year’s game was memorable for West Virginia QB Geno Smith having a brutal afternoon in the snow. Syracuse rolled the Mountaineers and left the draft community stunned. There will be several future NFL players on the field this year too.
Rutgers WR Brandon Coleman has the highest ceiling of any player in this game. The junior declared for the draft early, and he certainly has the athletic prowess to make the jump. Coleman has outstanding length at 6’6” and a lithe 220 pounds. His catch radius is borderline ridiculous, as he has long arms, strong fingers and pretty good leaping ability.
Alas, there is a downside. He struggled a bit this season in recovering from a knee injury, and he was not as explosive off the line as he was in 2012. Pinstripe Bowl fans might recall his long touchdown in the 2011 game, and it’s that sort of dynamic ability to fend off defenders and rack up yards after the catch that makes him tantalizing to NFL scouts. He’s also shown great physicality as a blocker at times.
Coleman has a little diva to him, though it’s nothing out of the ordinary for a star wideout. He has not been shy about expressing frustration with the oft-erratic throws of Scarlet Knights QB Gary Nova, who has been replaced. The bigger issue for Coleman is his drops. Coleman doesn’t always look the ball into his hands, and his drops tend to come at the worst possible time. A strong showing in his collegiate finale would help springboard Coleman into the second day of the draft. Heading into the 2013 season, Coleman was my #2 wide receiver (after Marqise Lee) and the potential is still there for him to become a force at the next level.
The Scarlet Knights don’t have any other players who will be drafted on the first two days, but they have a handful of late-round and UDFA prospects with some NFL aspirations. Foremost is safety Jeremy Deering, who has a lot of speed and decent size but lacks great instincts. He has a lot of special teams experience and could make a living at the next level in that capacity. He’s questionable for this game with a hamstring, so his range will likely be limited.
Guard Antwan Lowery is a heavy-handed thumper who is headed for the Shrine Game next month. There is just enough athleticism and foot agility to make it, and he should get drafted on the third day.
Outside linebacker Jamal Merrell missed time earlier this season with a freak kidney injury suffered while making an interception. He never looked fully recovered. Merrell has decent range and some coverage skills, and he closes quickly on the ball. He typically plays as the “bear”, a hybrid DE/OLB in their defense, but at just 220 pounds he will have to play off the line full-time in the NFL or CFL.
Notre Dame has two linemen that look to be future NFL starters. Both are headed to the Senior Bowl.
Left tackle Zach Martin doesn’t have the length or quick feet to handle that spot in the NFL, but he has the makings of an excellent left guard. Martin is very adept at getting his hands on the shoulders of defenders in a position of power, and he has great leg drive to move them off a spot. He’s not afraid to mix it up either, and folks in South Bend rave about his leadership. Martin looks like a second round pick next May.
The Irish’s actual left guard is Chris Watt, and he’s also a legit NFL talent. He was outstanding against Oklahoma, showing the ability to seek and destroy at the second level. He might project better to right guard, where his power and bowling-ball style of run blocking fits better. While not a great athlete, he’s quick to recover if initially beaten and that’s good enough athleticism for me. He projects as a 5th or 6th round pick but I will rate him higher than that.
The Irish have four players headed to Shrine Game week as well. Wideout T.J. Jones is the most likely to make a big impact in the NFL. He’s quicker than fast but also fast, with light feet and the ability to plant and cut sharply without decelerating. He’s not very big, and that poses issues for Jones as both a receiver but especially as a blocker. He has the makings of a quality 3rd wideout in the NFL.
Quarterback Tommy Rees is somehow regarded as a NFL prospect by some, but I really don’t see it. He’s just not good enough or consistent enough to stick at the next level despite having a live arm and underrated pocket movement skills. Perhaps he can prove skeptics like me wrong.
Both players on the defensive side of the ball are less heralded than the two guys up front (I’ll get to them in a minute), but both linebacker Prince Shembo and CB Bennett Jackson look like “safe” third day picks. Neither will be a star but figure to have decent careers as either top reserves or sub-package contributors. Jackson is a bigger corner with a good grasp of using his physicality. He doesn’t have very fluid movement skills, however. Notre Dame helps him by playing him way off in coverage and letting him close quickly on quick passes in front of him. He’ll need that sort of scheming or playing more in straight zone at the next level.
Then there are the big boys on the defensive line. Louis Nix will be a first-round pick, though he did not play like one in 2013. He was much better in 2012, when he was visibly lighter. Nix could make a great one-gap tackle at the next level if he can get his weight in check and play with passion on every snap. The brute power and quick steps are impressive, and he has some skill with his hands.
Stephon Tuitt fans are not going to like my evaluation. If you cannot accept professional criticism based on two games in person and another five broken down on film, just stop reading now. You might not want to watch the gam either, because all of his negative qualities will be on full display.
My biggest critique of the potential top 40 pick is that his first movement on just about every snap is straight up, rather than forward. He exposes his chest and shoulders to blockers, and offensive linemen with quick punches or good feet easily vanquish him right away. His conditioning is a major issue as well. I noted in three different game evaluations that he got gassed easily, and it’s very easy to spot because he quits moving his feet.
Every so often Tuitt will flash headiness and a blend of quickness and power that tantalize as a 5-technique end or even a 3-technique, but it’s far too infrequent to take him before about the 5th round. Yet I strongly suspect he will be taken in the first 40-50 picks.
Others to watch: Notre Dame RB George Atkinson, Notre Dame LB Carlo Calabrese,
Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, Antwan Lowery, Bennett Jackson, Bowl Preview, Brandon Coleman, Chris Watt, Jamal Merrell, Jeremy Deering, Louis Nix, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, Pinstripe Bowl, Prince Shembo, Rutgers Scarlet Knights, Stephon Tuitt, TJ Jones, Zack Martin