The professional futures of a select group of former Notre Dame players will begin Wednesday in Indianapolis.
The annual NFL Scouting Combine, which runs this year from Feb. 19-25, will showcase the best available talent for the upcoming NFL draft in May.
Nine of those prospects hail from Notre Dame, giving the Irish the third-most invitees behind Alabama (13) and LSU (11). The event is an all-encompassing test of prospects' athletic and mental abilities, and includes rounds of interviews with management personnel from prospective teams.
For those players who may have flown under the radar during their collegiate careers, the combine serves as an opportunity to prove to those in the professional ranks that they're worthy of a draft choice or, at least, an unsigned free-agent deal.
For Notre Dame, the hope is to have each of its players in this combine class impress the scouts, general managers and coaches in attendance.
The former Fighting Irish invitees include the following:
- Troy Niklas, TE
- George Atkinson III, RB
- Louis Nix, DT
- Prince Shembo, LB
- TJ Jones, WR
- Chris Watt, OL
- Zack Martin, OL
- Stephon Tuitt, DE
- Bennett Jackson, CB
Since being tabbed as a 5-star prospect by Rivals.com three short years ago, Tuitt's name has bounced around as a future first-round NFL draft selection.
While experiencing a subpar junior season due to a lengthy recovery from offseason sports hernia surgery, no doubt exists regarding the Monroe, Ga., native's first-round credentials. Checking in at 6'7" and 322 pounds, Tuitt is one of the more physically imposing defensive linemen in the current draft class.
While a player of his size would typically be regarded as a slow, meandering bruiser, Tuitt possesses deceptive speed and a quick burst off the edge.
Aside from his health status, the biggest question facing Tuitt will be whether that speed is legit, meaning his 40-yard-dash time will be closely monitored by those in attendance.
Given his questionable health, a reasonable prediction for that 40 time would lie somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.9 seconds, which is respectable for a player many have pegged as a true 3-4 defensive end.
For anyone who may have doubts about Tuitt's speed even when healthy, please have a look at his 77-yard fumble return touchdown against Navy in Dublin, Ireland, which was Notre Dame's opening game of the 2012 season.
Perhaps the most consistent player during the initial four years of the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, Jones could very well be a sleeper pick in this year's draft.
The Roswell, Ga., native led the Irish in receptions (70), receiving yards (1,108) and touchdown receptions (9) during the 2013 season, a collection of figures that helped launch him into legitimate discussion as a mid- to late-round selection.
While Jones possesses superb athleticism and soft hands as a possession receiver, his physical tools and size will come into question. Listed at 5'11.5" and 195 pounds on Notre Dame's official athletics website, will teams be willing to take a chance on Jones as a true NFL possession receiver?
He's not going to take the top off any defense and won't be the type of receiver to win a battle for a jump ball, so proving himself in both the 40-yard dash and 225-pound bench press will be critical for Jones.
With the pre-combine work Jones has put in, realistic expectations for him in the 40 and 225-pound bench would be 4.5 seconds and between 10-12 reps, respectively.
The quandary facing Shembo entering both the combine and draft is whether he can excel as a tweener in the NFL.
During his career at Notre Dame, Shembo played as a hybrid linebacker/defensive end in former defensive coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 scheme. At 6'2" and 258 pounds, that would be the ideal scenario for him in the professional ranks.
Shembo will likely be passed over by some teams given his relatively short height for a player at his position, but if he can silence the doubters of his quickness and burst off the edge as a pass-rusher, at least one club will be willing to take a chance on him.
To prove himself, the Charlotte, N.C., native will need to impress those in attendance in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump, the final two being pure tests of lower-body explosion.
It's unlikely Shembo will have a great 40 time, though with his pre-combine work with fellow Notre Dame alums Bennett Jackson and TJ Jones, he could realistically post a time of roughly 4.6 to 4.7 seconds.
In the vertical jump and broad jump, expect to see Shembo post jumps of 36" and 7'7" to 7'10", respectively.
Despite concerns about his height (6'4") and arm length (32.25"), Zack Martin is viewed as a legitimate first-round draft choice by NBC analyst Mike Mayock, who calls Notre Dame home games, via Mike Huguenin of NFL.com:
I was really impressed by how good of a football player he is. He's even better than I thought. Is he a tackle? Is he a right tackle? Is he a guard? My answer ... is he's a football player, and next season he's going to start 16 games for somebody.
Given that gleaming assessment from Mayock, Martin's measurables likely won't be watched as closely as other prospects, though he'll still need to grade out at a high level so as to keep prospective teams happy.
Because Martin's arm length has come into question, his performance in the vertical jump will likely receive the most attention of any event the Indianapolis native participates in.
Per NFL.com, the highest mark in the vertical jump from an offensive tackle in last season's combine came from Terron Armstead, a third-round selection of the New Orleans Saints. Like Martin, Armstead stands at 6'4", and he posted a combine-best 34.5" vertical.
While Martin isn't likely to match or eclipse that number, it stands to reason that he could break just past 30 inches.
Without Watt, the left side of Notre Dame's offensive line wouldn't have been the dominant unit that it was.
Watt, a Glen Ellyn, Ill., native, paired with Zack Martin to form one of the most formidable offensive line duos in the country during the past three seasons. However, Watt doesn't hold nearly the same pro potential as Martin at this point in time, though that could change, beginning with the combine.
Size won't be a concern for Watt, whom Notre Dame listed at 6'3" and 321 pounds, which is ideal size for the guard position at the next level.
Yet what Watt lacks is the raw athleticism required to play the position in the NFL, meaning his performance in the 40-yard dash, three-cone drill and shuttle run will be critical for his draft stock.
Following are Watt's expected marks in the events:
- 40-yard dash: 5.3 seconds
- Three-cone drill: 7.75 seconds
- Shuttle run: 4.75 seconds
Without question, Atkinson III is the fastest player among Notre Dame's combine participants.
The junior running back declared early for the 2014 NFL draft after having been suspended for the Irish's 29-16 Pinstripe Bowl victory against Rutgers in December and after having been surpassed on the depth chart by both Cam McDaniel and Tarean Folston.
While those are rare circumstances under which a player would declare early for the draft, Atkinson III was able to do so because of his elite straight-line speed.
The Stockton, Calif., native is a legitimate 4.4-second 40-yard-dash prospect and was able to hone that speed as a member of Notre Dame's track and field squad during his freshman and sophomore seasons.
While it's highly unlikely any team would select him as a running back, it's much more realistic for a team to take a chance on him as a kick/punt returner.
Thus, Atkinson III need only impress in his 40-yard-dash attempt, which could potentially dip into the 4.3-second range.
Niklas is one of the most intriguing prospects in this year's draft class.
The 6'7", 270-pounder played along the offensive line at Servite High School in Fullerton, Calif., and was moved to linebacker as a freshman in 2011. However, the Irish coaching staff noticed more potential for Niklas at the tight end position, which is where he has naturally progressed as a terrific in-line blocker.
That's Niklas' overwhelming strength, though a rise in his draft stock would be the result of him proving himself as a reliable threat in the passing game.
His 2013 season statistics support that notion, as Niklas was the Irish's third-leading receiver after hauling in 32 receptions for 498 yards and five touchdowns.
Thus, scouts, general managers and coaches will be highly interested in watching his 40-yard-dash performance and 225-pound bench-press outing. As a bigger tight end, Niklas would be expected to run the 40 in roughly 4.75 seconds and put on a show on the bench, throwing up 25 reps at 225 pounds.
Jackson's draft stock certainly took a hit after a substandard senior season.
Noted for his tremendous agility and excellent footwork, the Hazlet, N.J., native is a tremendous athlete in space but lacks the elite speed necessary to be an every-down cornerback in the NFL.
However, Jackson could find himself a spot in the professional ranks as a nickelback or, as another possibility, a reliable backup. In what capacity Jackson winds up in the NFL will largely depend on his 40-yard-dash time, as well as a vertical jump to indicate an ability to get up and win in jump-ball situations.
It wouldn't arrive as a surprise to see Jackson post a 40 time in the high 4.5 range, with 4.57 to 4.58 being a realistic expectation. And in the vertical jump, Jackson is a likely candidate for a mid-30-inch jump.
Known as one of best available interior defensive linemen in the 2014 draft class, Nix doesn't have much to prove in the way of measurables.
The mammoth 6'3", 357-pound defensive tackle has already consistently displayed excellent sideline-to-sideline quickness for a player of his size, while also proving his ability to win battles at the point of attack.
With those attributes already known, can Nix prove that he possesses the strength to consistently beat opposing NFL offensive linemen?
That's where the 225-pound bench press will come in as the most influential of the combine drills for Nix.
The big man known as a "Big Lou" can be realistically expected to put up at least 27 reps at 225 pounds on the bench.