SOUTH BEND – As Miles Boykin put on a clinic at the NFL scouting combine over the weekend, his former Notre Dame teammates gathered in their locker room at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex to watch and cheer on the wide receiver after the first day of spring practice.
“Man, we were all in there,” rising senior safety Jalen Elliott said. “We were really excited for him. He had some great times.”
And Boykin was hardly alone.
“Whenever your brother succeeds, you feel like you succeed,” Elliott said. “We were just all happy that he went out there and kind of showed the world what he’s been showing us for four years now.”
Now that Boykin and seven other former Fighting Irish standouts have left their mark on the annual pre-draft gathering, who would they nominate to fill the void they will leave in 2019? There was no shortage of candidates when the topic was posed.
Avery Davis is no longer in the mix after the former quarterback recruit from Texas was moved from running back to cornerback for spring practice.
But Dexter Williams, who fell just five yards shy of 1,000 while scoring 13 touchdowns in nine games last season, believes the group will be just fine without him.
“The guys I’m leaving behind in the running back room — I’ll start with the young guys,” Williams said at the combine. “I always made sure I took care of the young guys a lot, Jahmir Smith and C’Bo (Flemister).”
Smith, who gained 13 pounds of muscle while redshirting last season, has impressed Irish coach Brian Kelly with his improved physique. Along with Flemister, another redshirt freshman, they eventually will have to hold off 2019 signee Kyren Williams, a four-star recruit from St. Louis.
“Who is going to step up and take the position right now?” Dexter Williams said. “I’d say Tony Jones Jr. and Jafar (Armstrong) because they have the most experience right now and I know they’re ready to play at that level.”
Armstrong, a converted wide receiver who rushed for seven scores and averaged 5.3 yards per carry as a redshirt freshman, will get the first crack at becoming the feature back. Jones, a rising junior, averaged 6.2 yards per touch, including a 51-yard touchdown scamper on a screen pass at USC in the regular-season finale.
“They all have their own playing style,” Williams said. “Tony is a very aggressive, power running back, almost like (Jerome) Bettis, ‘The Bus.’ Jafar is very versatile. He can play receiver or running back. He’s almost like a Kenyan Drake in the NFL.”
Bettis, of course, is a Notre Dame great who became a Super Bowl champion and a Pro Football Hall of Famer. Drake, the former Alabama standout, has become a dual threat for the Miami Dolphins.
Even after sending a pair of top-10 picks (Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey) to the NFL off a Joe Moore Award-winning offensive line a year ago, Notre Dame remade itself on the fly and barely missed a beat.
It should help that Jeff Quinn, who switched duties to replace offensive line coach Harry Hiestand after the latter headed back to the Chicago Bears, will be in his second year running the offensive line.
“The culture of that room, the standard of that room,” former co-captain Alex Bars said at the combine. “We all hold ourselves accountable to the highest standard and really make sure that we collectively as a group reach that standard. We’re very supportive of one another.”
Bars, ahead of schedule after undergoing knee surgery to repair torn ACL and MCLs early last October, is bullish on the group he leaves behind.
“We’re going to have a really good line next year,” Bars said.
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Aaron Banks eventually stepped in at left guard as a redshirt freshman after some initial experimentation at the spot Bars vacated late in the Stanford game. Banks, slowed by a sprained foot at the outset of spring practice, has a high ceiling and was a willing listener as Bars helped bring him up to speed for six consecutive starts.
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“The thing about Banks is he’s very open to coaching,” Bars said. “He wants to get better and he was looking at me all the time like, ‘How can I improve on this? How can I get better on this?’ You could see his improvement from that mentality. Very powerful player, so his upside is very large.”
Starting tackles Liam Eichenberg and Robert Hainsey both return for their junior seasons of eligibility. They were among eight players named SWAT team captains during offseason workouts, putting them on the likely short list when team captains are announced later this spring.
“I remember Rob used to meet with me all the time, especially early on in the season, to make sure he was fixing the things he needed to fix,” Bars said.
Eichenberg, who had to work with three different starting left guards during the season, came through that challenge just fine while protecting the blind side of quarterbacks Brandon Wimbush and Ian Book all year.
“The kid, his upside is unbelievable,” Bars said. “He’s got so much potential.”
According to Bars, Eichenberg has the ability to dominate individually and lead with his personality. The nasty streak that characterized the 2017 offensive line could carry forward with the 2019 group as well.
“I think they all have it in them, especially Liam,” Bars said. “Liam can bring it out of anyone. All the guys across the board have that aggressiveness.”
In addition to returning starter Tommy Kraemer at right guard, the Irish have a pair of candidates to replace three-year starter Sam Mustipher at center. There’s graduate Trevor Ruhland, a versatile piece coming off an arthroscopic procedure after dealing with elbow problems last season, and converted tackle Jarrett Patterson, a redshirt freshman and former four-star recruit from southern California.
“Trevor will be there for a fifth year and lead that group,” Bars said. “They have a lot of experience and want to get better.”
In Drue Tranquill and Te’von Coney, Notre Dame is sending to the NFL a pair of highly productive linebackers with nearly 600 career tackles between them.
But that doesn’t mean they can’t be replaced.
While Tranquill mentored his friend Asmar Bilal, the Ben Davis High School product who could follow Tranquill’s progression from rover to buck, Coney sees big things ahead for fellow linebacker Bo Bauer.
“He’s going to do a great job,” Coney said. “He’s young, but he’s hungry. He has a real similar mentality like me. He wants to make a lot of plays, he wants to get better, and with a guy with that attitude and the gifts he has as a person, I’m excited to see what he does this year. Coach (Clark) Lea will have him ready to play, and he’s going to have an excellent sophomore year.”
Bauer, from Erie, Pa., saw action in all 13 games as a freshman and is a former four-star recruit who benefited from having regular access to Coney.
“He was my roommate, so we talked a lot, and I’ve seen his work ethic and how eager he was to get better,” Coney said. “He really wants to find ways to get better, and that was something I did when I was younger, having Jaylon Smith as a mentor, always picking his brain, always finding ways how I can improve my game. That’s something I did, and I see (it) in him. It’s going to take him a long way.”
That video of Boykin running a 4.42 time in the 40-yard dash at the combine? It was shared on the Twitter account of rising senior receiver Chase Claypool.
“That boy getting paid!!” Claypool tweeted. “This what family all about man.”
While Boykin enjoyed a breakout season in 2018, Claypool was just nine catches, four touchdowns and 233 yards behind him. That’s why the physical (6-4 3/8 and 229 pounds) product of Abbotsford, B.C., was the obvious choice to step into Boykin’s former spot as the “X” receiver.
“I think he’s ready for the challenge,” Boykin said. “He’s probably going to take over the No. 1 receiver spot now. Look for big things coming out of him.”
Boykin, who has had a chance to speak by phone a couple of times with his idol Calvin Johnson, intends to remain a trusted resource for Claypool.
“We talk all the time, whether it’s on Xbox or he just hits me on the phone,” Boykin said. “So, any time he asks me a question I’m glad to help him.”
Tight end Alize Mack, another combine invitee with great size, gave his seal of approval to Claypool as well.
“That dude’s a beast — a beast,” Mack said. “Physical, very physical. Goes up and attacks the ball well. Strong hands. He’s a big guy, big target. I think him and Ian (Book) are going to get along very well next year.”
Claypool can be just as powerful blocking in the run game.
“We didn’t even have to tell him that because he was that way Day 1 when he came on campus,” Mack said. “He’s always been a dominant guy. In the run game, out wide, he kills corners. I think corners fear that. That’s definitely something that you love to see on tape. You know he’s going to make plays.”
While All-American cornerback Julian Love won’t be easy to replace after setting a school record for career pass breakups, he is confident in opposite number Troy Pride Jr.
“A lot is shifting around, but Troy Pride is destined to lead and to really take his spot at the top,” Love said. “He’s a fantastic athlete — you guys will see that in no time — but his knowledge of the game is very high.”
Pride, whose sprinter’s speed is rivaled by few on the 2019 Irish roster, enters his senior season with just three career interceptions. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence wasted little time picking on fill-in Donte Vaughn rather than Pride when Love missed the second quarter of the Cotton Bowl with a possible head injury.
Love also predicted further growth for the returning safety combo of Jalen Elliott (a senior) and junior transfer Alohi Gilman, two more SWAT team captains who combined for six interceptions in 2018. Gilman led the Irish with 18 tackles in the loss to Clemson.
“I’ve got to show love for the DBs,” Love said. “Alohi Gilman, Jalen Elliott, they had great years last year, but this year they’re going to take the next step. They’re both fantastic leaders.”
Staff writers Joel Erickson (@JoelAErickson) and Akeem Glaspie (@THEAkeemGlaspie) contributed to this report.
Follow Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.