March 22, 2018
By John Heisler
Maybe there should have been a cautionary sign posted at the entrance that read, “Only Whispers Allowed.”
A visitor happening by the Loftus Center Thursday on the University of Notre Dame campus might have mistaken the indoor Irish football facility for the Basilica of the Sacred Heart that’s actually a handful of blocks to the north and west.
That’s how quiet it was most of the middle of the day despite the fact 58 individuals representing all 32 National Football League teams had come to Pro Day to evaluate Irish football players who have hopes of heading to the professional level.
Though that facility normally is awash in noise from Irish practice sessions (and sometimes lacrosse games) in a variety of different sports, today was different.
Various NFL coaches and personnel put the Irish players through their paces Thursday—but instead of the raucous cheers that normally reverberate in nearby Notre Dame Stadium, this work was done in mostly hushed tones.
Nine former Irish players took part in all or parts of the planned exercises—running back Josh Adams, linebacker Greer Martini, offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, linebacker Nyles Morgan, offensive guard Quenton Nelson, tight end Durham Smythe, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown, defensive lineman Andrew Trumbetti and quarterback Malik Zaire.
Some, like Nelson, expect to be among the first players selected in the April 26-28 NFL Draft.
Others, including some not invited to the February NFL Combine, hoped to show enough to merit later-round selection or a free-agent opportunity.
Covering and surrounding the Loftus field was a wide mixture of observers—from the NFL personnel and scouts to Irish coaches, current Notre Dame players, parents and family, agents, media and more.
Current Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush even jogged over to provide Nelson and McGlinchey with water bottles during a brief break in their offensive line drills.
Every so often came an outbreak of clapping or words of encouragement, but most of the work transpired in relative silence, with conversations happening in muted tones.
After measurements, broad jump, vertical jump and bench press trials in late morning, players were timed in the 40-yard dash and various shuttle drills.
Each position group was afforded 15 minutes of drills as directed by different NFL personnel.
All evaluations were videotaped by Notre Dame football staffers and made available to the teams.
Yet, an unconnected observer might have had no real idea what actually transpired. The various pro staff members shared a few observations among themselves but most made their own notes and evaluations.
For those 32 teams, there’s that much at stake when the draft happens late next month at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Combined with data from the NFL Scouting Combine, today’s workouts represented the final formal exercises for the Notre Dame crew.
None of this comes as much of a surprise to players like Smythe, who also played in the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, in front of dozens of pro personnel and then attended the Combine in Indianapolis.
Already in possession of a degree from Notre Dame, Smythe has spent the last few months working out at the EXOS training facility in San Diego, California, with Nelson and McGlinchey (both consensus All-Americans in 2017).
Smythe now will remain in South Bend, working out at the Notre Dame facilities and available to meet or work out for individual NFL teams prior to the draft.
Smythe on Thursday was asked by a Philadelphia Eagles’ staffer to stand against a Loftus Center wall and do a series of deep-knee squats (Smythe termed them a variation of a flexibility test) while the Eagles’ representative shot them with his cell phone.
He’s no stranger to what took place Thursday and what he was asked to do.
“Being here the last four years to watch as a spectator, I had a good idea what this was going to be about,” he says.
“You have a general sense, but every now and then they throw something in that’s a little different, sometimes just to get you off-guard a little and see how you react.
“Most of these drills are things we’ve done in the past, so generally I was pretty comfortable with it.”
Even so, these 15-minute workout segments can be slightly nerve-wracking considering what’s at stake:
“It is a little bit because you know everyone’s eyes in the building are on you. But over the last few months it’s happened to me a few times. At the Senior Bowl it was the same way. At the Combine it was the same way. After awhile you get conditioned to it a little bit. But when it’s your time and you’re up, there are still a few jitters.”
Smythe was pleased to be invited to the Senior Bowl.
“It was an opportunity to show what I could do in several facets of the game,” he says.
And now the waiting game begins.
From now until the draft, Smythe, Nelson, McGlinchey and the others will read, watch and hear all sorts of draft prognostications and listen to dozens of experts tell them what to expect.
The NFL.com draft site quoted an American Football Conference area scout saying this about Smythe: “There are only a handful of the old school tight ends who are big and able to help you in the run game and he’s one of them.”
In five weeks, Smythe and his Irish teammates hope to see all those hushed remarks turn into destinations.