BBD Assistant Editor: Ryan Talbot
Notre Dame and Rutgers will “play ball” when they face off in the Pinstripe Bowl (Saturday, 12 p.m. ET, ESPN) at Yankee Stadium. Both Notre Dame (8-4) and Rutgers (6-6) took a step backward in 2013 after strong 2012 seasons. The Fighting Irish had an unbelievable 2012 season, going 12-0 before getting throttled in the national title game against Alabama. Rutgers started the 2012 season 7-0 before finishing the season 2-4. Neither team could match its win total from the year before in 2013, but a win Saturday could get one team off on the right foot as they head into 2014.
While neither team had great 2013 seasons, both have talent headed to the 2014 NFL draft, though Notre Dame’s roster has more overall talent.
Stephon Tuitt, DE, Notre Dame, Jr. (6’6″, 312 lbs)
Stephon Tuitt is the player to watch on Saturday. Tuitt has not announced whether he will declare for the 2014 NFL draft, but a strong performance on Saturday could help make his decision easier. Tuitt recently received a second-round grade from the NFL advisory board, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said according to NFL.com, but his size and versatility should make him attractive to NFL teams.
Tuitt, who has the ability to play defensive end or defensive tackle in the NFL., has started all 12 games for Notre Dame this season. He has 45 tackles (7.5 for loss) and six sacks. For his career, Tuitt has 20 sacks at Notre Dame, good for fifth in school history.
Rutgers does not have anyone on its offensive line who can stop Tuitt consistently, so expect him to give the Scarlet Knights fits. Tuitt has a rare combination of size, speed and quickness.
Zack Martin, LT, Notre Dame, Sr. (6’4″, 308 lbs)
On the offensive side of the ball, Zack Martin is Notre Dame’s top prospect. Martin has started 51 games for Notre Dame in four seasons, and most of those starts have come at left tackle. Martin will likely play guard in the NFL, as he doesn’t possess the size and strength to play tackle at the next level, but he is agile and moves well for an offensive lineman.
Martin’s job on Saturday will be to keep Tommy Rees clean in his last game as Notre Dame quarterback.
Prince Shembo, OLB, Notre Dame, Sr. (6’1″, 258 lbs)
Shembo is likely to be a day three pick in the NFL draft, but he is still a player to watch Saturday. Shembo has played both outside linebacker and defensive end for the Irish this season, and has accounted for 17 quarterback hurries, the most for a Notre Dame player since 2004. In one of Notre Dame’s most impressive wins of the season Oct. 5, Shembo recorded three sacks against Arizona State.
Against Rutgers, Shembo is likely to be used as a moveable chess piece of sorts. His primary role on Saturday will be to disrupt Rutgers quarterback Chas Dodd.
Louis Nix, DT, Notre Dame, Jr. (6’2″, 345 lbs)
Louis Nix will not be on the field Saturday due to having surgery in November to repair a torn meniscus in his left knee, but he still deserves a mention. Nix is extremely agile for his size and is likely to be a day one starter in the NFL. The defensive tackle has been a dominant force on the field for Notre Dame and is likely to be the first defensive tackle taken in the 2014 NFL draft.
Brandon Coleman, WR, Rutgers, Jr. (6’5″, 220 lbs)
On the season, Coleman has 32 catches, 473 yards and 3 touchdowns. Coleman had knee surgery in the off-season and his production is down from 2012 (43 receptions, 718 yards, 10 touchdowns), but he is someone Notre Dame is going to focus on. Kerry Cooks, Notre Dame’s interim defensive coordinator, had high praise for Coleman in an interview with Mike Vorkunov of NJ.com.
“Maybe early in the season you could see where he was still having some residual effects coming back,” Cooks said. “But the back half of the season, and particularly these last two games, I would say that he looks like a top-level wide receiver. I understand he just declared for the draft, he looks like a guy you have to worry about.”
Coleman and his fellow wide receivers will have to productive to keep Rutgers in Saturday’s game against the Irish. He will be looking to make a statement in his final college football game, as he declared for the 2014 draft earlier this month.
Antwan Lowery, OG, Rutgers, Sr. (6’4″, 310 lbs)
Lowery could have his hands full on Saturday, but if he can keep a talented Notre Dame defensive line in check, he will help his case to get drafted late in the 2014 NFL draft. A guard who uses his hands well and is sound in his technique, Lowery is a fringe selection for the 2014 draft.
Jamal Merrell, OLB, Rutgers, Sr. (6’4″, 220 lbs)
Another likely undrafted free agent, strongside linebacker Jamal Merrell is a three-year starter for Rutgers after starting his collegiate career as a wide receiver. Merrell’s production this season was hampered by a kidney problem and splitting playing time with Rochester, N.Y. native Quentin Gause.
Tags: 2013 Pinstripe Bowl, 2014 NFL Draft, Antwan Lowery, Brandon Coleman, Fighting Irish, Jamal Merrell, Louis Nix, Notre Dame, Prince Shembo, Prospect Preview, Rutgers, Scarlet Knights, Stephon Tuitt, Zack Martin