Friday, March 02, 2007

Quintessence | by Pat

More than just a play on Brady's last name, quintessence, as any astrophysicist will tell you, is a term for the so-called "vacuum energy" that is theorized to exist, well, everywhere. No one can see it, and it has no mass, but some say it is the driving force of our ever-expanding universe. In the spaces between the stars and galaxies, this energy is theorized to pop into existence, do its dirty work, and disappear again, all in the smallest fraction of a second.

A sort of quintessence is at work in the days leading up to the NFL draft, invisibly shaping opinions about the typical football star as they graduate from college hero to pro hopeful. In the time between their last college game and the actual draft, opinions sprout up, seemingly out of nowhere -- and at times with no basis in reality -- contribute to a common consensus of a player's draftability, and then disappear back into the ether as if they never existed in the first place. As ND fans, we are attuned to the criticisms heaped on Brady Quinn in particular, but it strikes every player. Quinn can't win the big game, JaMarcus Russell is fat and lazy, Calvin Johnson disappears for games at a time, Joe Thomas...well, okay, everyone admits that Thomas is a stud. The phenomenon is a curious one and certainly a head-scratcher for the players involved. Quoth Quinn on his rumored draft slide:

“It’s kind of hard for a guy to slip when we haven’t done anything,” he said, meaning on the football field. “It’s funny to sit back and hear some of that, and you’re thinking: ‘Man, did I not, like, lift today? Did somebody see me in the weight room miss a rep?’ I’m kind of confused.”
Still, it's silly to become outraged or upset at these various talking head opinions. Some statements are largely correct but perhaps overstated, while some are purposeful disinformation planted by NFL teams looking to mask their draft intentions. Others are what you get from guys who continue to think that having Terrell Owens on your team might be a good thing.

In Quinn's case, his slide down the draft board is largely being credited to his poor showing in the Sugar Bowl against LSU. Even Quinn can't deny that.
"We didn't do enough to get a win," he said. "And any time that's how you end your career, that's how you end your last game going into the NFL, of course people are going to harp on that. That's what everyone can think about and write about. That's their last memory."
I have to chuckle at this, however. While Quinn is getting criticized over his performance against the nation's #3 defense, JaMarcus Russell is being credited for his ability to throw against ND's 87th ranked pass efficiency defense and its lackluster pass rush. If all it takes
to cement top QB status is a single great game against ND, then Russell needs to get in line behind Tyler Palko, Curtis Painter, and Joe Dailey. But I digress.

Trying to reveal some substance in the ongoing debate was this past week's NFL Combine: a meat market full of stopwatches, agility drills, enthusiastic strength coaches, team GMs, scouts galore, and reporters representing mainstream and online media outlets of all shapes and sizes. You might argue that the growing importance of the combine is leading to more players being drafted for their "measureables" (40 times, vertical jumps, bench press) than their actual football acumen, but that's another debate for another day.

ND's combine representatives included Quinn, Rhema McKnight, Ryan Harris, Dan Santucci, Darius Walker, Derek Landri, and Chinedum Nduwke. Here's a rundown of their performance.

Brady Quinn. After announcing his intentions to complete all physical tasks at ND's Pro Day this coming Sunday, Quinn was talked into doing the bench press, where he promptly ripped off 24 reps of 225 pounds. His total was the highest for all QBs and more than many running backs and wide receivers, not to mention a handful of offensive lineman (more on that later). For video of Quinn hitting the weights, being called "Sunshine" and parading around in the manbeef-friendly combine weigh-in, check out Brian Stouffer's update over on ND's AOL Fanhouse. Early in the week Quinn had an informative session with the media where he revealed that the knee injury that kept him out of the Senior Bowl occurred during his 60 yard run against USC earlier in the season. Quinn had the knee drained of fluid at halftime in order to stay in the game and later re-aggravated the injury during the Sugar Bowl against LSU. If you want more info on how Quinn prepared for the draft, you can check out his draft blog over on

Ryan Harris. With a poor performance during the Senior Bowl practice week, Harris has seen his draft stock slip as of late. Despite questions about his size, he did hit the magic 300-pound mark when he weighed in at 6-4, 305. However, he didn't exactly help his cause by putting up only 22 reps of 225 pounds during the bench press test. The average this year for offensive linemen was 27, so it's not like Harris was that far behind, but the fact that his own QB out-benched him put his numbers in a bad light. Where Harris did help himself was in the agility drills, where he finished 4th overall in the 20-yard shuttle and 11th in the 40-yard dash. It has been said that Willingham was recruiting smaller, faster OL for his West Coast offense, and Harris's combine results certainly don't dispute that notion.

Harris had a really interesting Q&A with the media before working out where he talked about his size and how it relates to playing in the NFL.
“I am my height and I am my current weight,” Harris said. “I always want to get stronger but I think there is a lot to be said for how you play versus how you look. I think a lot of successful players in the NFL now were passed up because they didn’t fit that certain profile and they still had a healthy or successful career.
Harris also went on to talk about the back surgery he had 5 weeks before the Georgia Tech game, yet still didn't miss a snap all season. In another article he talked about playing for Charlie and his potential future in politics.

“Coach Weis brought a system that any player in the country would have been lucky to have,” Harris said. “I was fortunate to play in his offense, and he surrounded himself with excellent coaches. I can't say enough about how thankful I am and how much I benefited from playing in Coach Weis’ system.”

And as is the story with many players at the Combine, Harris had some unique tales to tell during his meeting with the many media in attendance. Not only did he become the only member of his family to convert to the Muslim faith in middle school prior to attending a Catholic high school and college, but he also aspires to be governor of his home state of Minnesota.

“I think politics is a good avenue to affect peoples’ lives for the good, and I believe in this country and the system of the government,” Harris said. “It’s something I think I would enjoy.”

Wherever Harris winds up in life, he's going to be a great representative of Notre Dame.

Dan Santucci. Like Harris, Santucci was average at the bench with 23 reps, but kept with the "smaller, but quicker" theme with the 3rd-best 3-cone drill time, the 7th best vertical leap, and the 8th-best 40 time. With a strong showing in the agility drills, Santucci might have locked up day two draft selection. He's not nearly as massive as many of the hopeful NFL guards, but quick feet and a tough attitude should go a long way to help him make a team.

Rhema McKnight. McKnight elected not to run in the 40 yard dash at the combine, but did participate in a number of the other agility drills and did quite well for himself. He had the fastest time of any of the wide receivers in the 60 yard cone drill, the 8th best time in the 20 yard shuttle, and 13th best in the 3-cone drill. Of course, McKnight has always been known as an athletic guy. His hands will be the difference between a mid-1st-day draft pick or a slide to the later rounds. His rep for hauling in the spectacular grabs while dropping the easy ones is something he'll have to shed for NFL scouts at ND's pro day this weekend.

Darius Walker. If there was one combine number that many Irish fans were curious to find out, it was Walker's time in the 40. Never quite the home-run threat at ND, Walker still had plenty of speed and certainly was productive. But his 40 time at the combine, fair or not, was probably what was going to have the biggest impact on his draft spot. Ultimately, Walker ran a 4.56, which placed him near the middle of the running back times. Not fast enough to really get anyone's attention, but at the same time not too slow that it would hurt his draft chances. What did help Walker out was when he showcased a 40.5 inch vertical leap, the top vertical of all the running backs and one of the best leaps in the entire combine. Most scouts see the vertical as a sign of explosive athletic ability and Walker's numbers most definitely will give him a boost on a few draft boards. He's still likely to wind up as a 3rd-down back in the NFL, but given the fact that the NFL is a copycat league, and the Colts just won the Super Bowl featuring a running-back-by-committee approach, Walker just might be entering the league at the right time.

Victor Abiamiri. Victor's numbers at the combine didn't really hurt him, but probably didn't help him much either. After checking in at 6'4" 267 pounds, he put up 25 reps on the bench, which was near the average for defensive ends, and ran a 4.8 in the 40, which was the 13th-best time for defensive ends. The interesting thing was that he worked on both lineman and linebacker drills; no doubt some teams are checking to see if Victor can play outside linebacker in a pro 3-4 defense. Certainly his versatility will help him out as he remains somewhere in the early-2nd round to mid-3rd round grouping of potential draft picks.

Derek Landri.
Since he's still recovering from the MCL injury he sustained in the Sugar Bowl, Landri stayed away from the running and agility drills. He weighed in at 6'2, 288, which is on the lighter side for defensive tackles, and his bench press numbers, 24 reps, didn't scream defensive tackle either. It will be interesting to see if teams view Landri as a possible DE in a 3-4 defense as he has the speed to get around faster lineman. His success blocking kicks is a solid example of his fast starts off the line, and when ND moved him to DE in a 3-4 in the final snap of this year's ND-UCLA game, he blew by the Bruin left tackle to sack the QB and end the game. As with Victor, it will be interesting to see where teams slot Landri as an defensive player.

Chinedum Ndukwe. Nedu's numbers from the combine might have helped him earn a draft spot with some team. He showcased decent speed for a big safety with a 4.51 time in the 40, and he had the 7th best overall vertical leap for a safety with a 37.5 inch jump. Of course, Nedu's issues on the field were rarely his athletic ability but rather his positioning. If a team takes a chance on him and he settles into a comfort zone at safety -- remember he's only really been playing the position for two years -- he might be able to stick with a team for awhile. At the very least, his penchant for the big hit and ability to help create turnovers should at least get him a shot with a special teams unit somewhere.

If you want more scoop on the combine, has a wealth of stats, opinions, and even some video clips of the players going through the various field drills. A quick rundown of some of the various combine results can be found here, but I'm not exactly sure how accurate they all are. It does look like ND should get at least six players drafted and maybe as many as eight, which would be the highest number of drafted Irish players since the 1994 draft that featured Bryant Young, Aaron Taylor, Jeff Burris, and others. Where they all fall in the draft of course is subject to much debate and revision over the next few weeks as once again we enter a period with little activity but many opinions. At least we as Irish fans can all rest easy knowing that Luke Schmidt is in line for a 1st round slot in the 2010 NFL draft.