Notre Dame defensive tackle Louis Nix III may have been an early selection had he declared for the 2013 NFL draft as a redshirt sophomore. Returning to the Fighting Irish for another season could turn out to be a very smart move.
Nix would have entered an unusually strong defensive tackle class last year, including top-15 draft picks Sheldon Richardson (Missouri) and Star Lotulelei (Utah). In a draft where numerous defensive tackles including Florida's Sharrif Floyd slipped in part due to the depth at the position, Nix would have had to move ahead of some of the draft's top defensive tackles to be a first-round selection.
Given that he would be a graduate student at Notre Dame next season, the expectation is that Nix will declare for the 2014 draft. If he does, he will have a great shot of being the top defensive tackle selected.
Nix has a similar skill set to New England Patriots star nose tackle Vince Wilfork, and he has the potential to be an outstanding nose tackle in his own right.
He could emerge as the star of Notre Dame's defense this season with Manti Te'o having moved on to the National Football League. Additionally, another year of college football gives him time to make a bigger impression on NFL scouts and improve the weaknesses in his game.
Throughout the months of June and July, we are looking ahead to the 2014 draft here at Bleacher Report and breaking down 10 of the top defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class.
This week, we take a closer look at Nix and why he should have teams highly intrigued about his potential as a nose tackle.
A Physically Prototypical Nose Tackle
Nix has the combination of size and athleticism that scouts covet in a nose tackle. He is listed at 6'3" and 326 pounds by Notre Dame’s official athletics website. He backs up that size with great power and strength, and he combines it with rare athletic ability for his size.
Notre Dame has used Nix in both three-man fronts as a 0-technique nose tackle, and four-man fronts as a 1-technique nose tackle, as diagrammed in the screen shots below.
He can excel in both 3-4 and 4-3 defensive schemes.
He has the size, strength, length and quickness off the snap needed to draw double teams and occupy multiple blockers as a two-gap anchor in the middle of a three-man front.
In either defensive scheme, his power to drive back opponents, combined with his snap reaction and acceleration, gives him the ability to both shut down the middle as a run-stopper and push the pocket by bringing pass-rush pressure up the middle.
Nix is a nimble athlete. He runs very well for an athlete of his size and has shown the ability to get downfield and make plays past the line of scrimmage. He has good balance and maintains it well through cut block attempts.
His quickness off the snap helps make him a special prospect. While he does not often shoot by blockers on his quickness alone, he does a great job of jumping off the snap and getting into his opponents' pads quickly.
Yet although Nix has good quickness, he won't be viewed as a penetrator or gap-shooter. His ability to generate power through his quickness, on the other hand, makes him a potential star.
Dominance Through Power and Quickness
Even against many of the top offensive linemen he has faced, Nix typically wins individual matchups throughout a game with his ability to establish leverage and drive his opponent back with power.
A prime example of this came in the 2013 BCS National Championship Game versus Alabama. Although Notre Dame was embarrassed as a whole in their 42-14 loss to the Crimson Tide, Nix more than held his own against arguably the top interior offensive line in the country.
Studying the following cut-up from Draft Breakdown of Nix's plays in that game shows how he seriously challenged Alabama in the middle.
Nix has a clear understanding of the concept of leverage. While many defensive tackles with his height and size tend to play too high, Nix consistently does a great job of getting into his opponents at a more efficient pad level. From a proper posture, Nix can extend his arms forward to transfer his size and strength into driving his opponent back.
Nix has no shortage of raw power. He frequently takes on opponents straight on and drives them into the backfield. His ability to truly overpower offensive linemen with his leverage and strength stands out even against collegiate competition, and it gives him the ability to be a force on the interior defensive line.
He is a strong run-stopper who makes it very tough for opponents to run up the middle. If he can continue to dominate opposing centers at the next level by driving them back into opposing backfields, he will stop many inside runs in their tracks or force them outside into defensive traffic.
The following clip versus Barrett Jones, a fourth-round 2013 draft pick of the St. Louis Rams, shows him doing exactly that to a T.J. Yeldon inside rush attempt.
Even when Nix doesn't necessarily win a battle of leverage, he rarely loses one. He does a great job of holding his ground at the line of scrimmage and is difficult to drive off the line. That said, he also does a good job of retreating back off the line of scrimmage and making a sound tackle on a run upfield when he needs to.
A Two-Down Player? Examining Nix's Pass Rush Limitations
Nix has the game to come into the NFL in 2014 and immediately be a disruptive run-stopper. He could be viewed by teams as only a two-down player, however, due to his limitations as a pass-rusher.
Nix does not often get around blockers to get a free rush toward a quarterback. He does not make great pass-rushing moves with his hands. And even when he does get a free lane to the quarterback, he rarely chases them down as he does not have great pursuit speed.
He is forced to rely upon his power game even as a pass-rusher—but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Nix is very good at playing to his strengths. He doesn't beat his opponents with pass-rushing moves often, but it is not as though he constantly tries and fails with ineffective techniques.
By relying upon his power game, Nix can certainly bring pressure up the middle as a bull-rusher.
Wilfork has established himself as an effective three-down player for the Patriots with his ability to bring bull rush pressure as a pass-rusher. Nix has the ability to do the same and generate some sacks by driving his opponents back, like he did in the following Draft Breakdown clip versus Purdue.
Another full season at Notre Dame also gives Nix time to improve his all-around game as a pass-rusher. His utilization of swim moves and even inside spin moves improved over the course of last season, and he could become a more diversified pass-rusher if he continues to develop those moves.
Nix also has a good skill for utilizing his long arms to swat down passes, as he did twice in last season's contest versus Purdue.
Whether or not he can be an asset on the field in pass-rush situations will not be the only determining factor in whether Nix will be a three-down player at the next level. He has not been an every-down or every-series player at Notre Dame, which leaves questions about whether Nix has the stamina to handle a consistent three-down role at the next level.
If Nix was joining an NFL team now, he wouldn't likely be ready to play more than a two-down role as a nose tackle. In time, he could develop into a very effective three-down player.
Projecting Nix's Fit and Draft Stock
Nix should be targeted as a starting nose tackle for an NFL defense. His combination of size, power, quickness and playmaking ability, especially against the run, give him the potential to develop into one of the league's best interior defensive linemen.
The biggest concern with Nix's transition to the next level will be whether his power game will continue to be as effective as bigger, stronger and more technically sound NFL interior offensive linemen. That said, he has played well even against NFL-caliber opponents at Notre Dame, and his measurables should translate well.
Nix's draft stock could project anywhere from a top-10 pick to a Day 2 selection.
In terms of pure talent and potential, he looks like he belongs as an early first-round pick. However, NFL teams have seemed more willing to use early selections in recent drafts on penetrating, pass-rushing tackles than they have been on run-stuffing, gap-occupying nose tackles like Nix.
Nix's value will be highest to teams who run 3-4 defensive schemes, as they place a greater emphasis on the nose tackle anchoring the middle of the defensive line. That said, he could also be a terrific addition to a four-man front alongside a quicker penetrating tackle.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.