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Football

Five early prospects declare for NFL Draft

| Wednesday, January 13, 2016

In early December, Notre Dame submitted five names to the NFL Draft advisory board for grading.

All five players declared for April’s 2015 NFL Draft.

Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith, senior offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley, senior running back C.J. Prosise, senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell and junior receiver Will Fuller all announced their intentions to enter the draft and forego their remaining eligibility at Notre Dame.

Stanley said he would enter the draft Dec. 21, per CSN Chicago’s JJ Stankevitz, but the four other players waited until the days following Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1 to announce their decisions.

Senior offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley protects the quarterback during Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl.Wei Lin | The Observer

Senior offensive lineman Ronnie Stanley protects the quarterback during Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State on Jan. 1 in the Fiesta Bowl.

Stanley, a consensus All-American this season, started all 39 games at left tackle for the Irish over the last three seasons. He contemplated declaring for the draft after last season but was coaxed back to campus for the 2015 campaign. Stanley is rated as one of the top offensive linemen in this year’s draft class and a top-10 overall pick.

Prosise became the first Irish player to declare his intent to enter the draft following the Fiesta Bowl, posting a photo and farewell message to Instagram on Jan. 2.

“After a lot of thought and reflection I have decided to forego my remaining eligibility and declare for the NFL Draft,” Prosise wrote. “Thank you to Notre Dame, the coaches, staff, faculty and fans. I couldn’t have asked for a better university to play for, it’s been an honor to have played with Team 127 and I’m glad to have had the opportunity. I look forward to what lies ahead. Thank you, Go Irish!!!”

Prosise had a breakthrough 2015 campaign, his first in the backfield after shifting from receiver to running back in the spring. Despite being hampered by injuries late in the season, Prosise finished 2015 with 1,032 yards on the ground, the first Notre Dame running back to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark since Cierre Wood in 2011. Prosise found the end zone 11 times on the ground while adding another 308 yards and a score receiving.

Prosise ran for a career-high 198 yards and three touchdowns during Notre Dame’s 30-22 victory over Georgia Tech on Sept. 19 at Notre Dame Stadium. He matched that touchdown total during his 129-yard performance against Navy and eclipsed the 100-yard mark in games against Virginia (155 yards), Massachusetts (149 yards and two scores) and USC (143 yards and two touchdowns).

Prosise is projected as the No. 3 running back prospect, according to ESPN’s Mel Kiper, behind Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry of Alabama.

Fuller was the next to declare, releasing an official statement via Twitter on Jan. 3.

“My heart truly wanted to return to Notre Dame, but it has also been a lifelong dream to play football in the NFL,” Fuller said in the statement. “After taking all of this into lengthy consideration, I believe it is in my best interest to forgo my senior season and enter the 2016 draft.”

One of Notre Dame’s lowest-rated recruits in the high school class of 2017, Fuller broke out his sophomore season and continued that production this year. He led Irish receivers in 2015 with 62 catches for 1,258 yards and 14 of Notre Dame’s 25 receiving touchdowns. A second-team AP All-American, he totaled triple-digit yardage totals in seven games this season, against Texas (142), Virginia (124), Georgia Tech (131), USC (131), Pittsburgh (152), Stanford (136) and Ohio State (113).

Known for his breakout speed, the Philadelphia native tallied nine touchdowns for 30 yards or more, along with game-winning scores against Virginia and Temple.

Fuller originally said Nov. 11 he was returning to Notre Dame for his senior season, but after receiving feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, he said he was “keeping his avenues open” following the team’s awards banquet Dec. 11 before officially declaring his intent to head to the draft.

Russell told Sports Illustrated he was leaving for the draft Jan. 4. In 11 starts this season, Russell had 60 tackles, two interceptions, four pass breakups and two forced fumbles as the team’s top cornerback, before suffering a broken tibia against Boston College on Nov. 21 that ended his season. He is projected by several analysts as a second- or third-round pick.

As a senior, Russell had another year of eligibility after missing the entirety of the 2014 season due to an academic investigation and suspension. Had he returned to Notre Dame, he would have needed NCAA approval, something former teammate Ishaq Williams, who was also involved in the academic investigation, did not receive. However, Russell told Sports Illustrated the NCAA approval was not a factor in his decision.

Because of his injury, Russell said he would not participate in the physical drills at the NFL Combine. Instead, he will work out at Notre Dame’s Pro Day in March.

Smith was the final player to make his decision, which was complicated after he suffered what Irish head coach Brian Kelly called a “significant knee injury” during the first quarter of the Fiesta Bowl. A consensus All-American along with Stanley, Smith was projected as a lock for a top-10 pick before the injury, according to multiple draft experts, but took his time before releasing a video announcing his plans on his Twitter account Monday.

“I just want to thank everyone for really having my back and trusting my decision,” Smith said in the video. “It’s really just perseverance from here. With the adversity I’m going through right now dealing with the knee injury, I have the same vision. It’s just a different path.”

Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith tracks the ballcarrier during Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl.Wei Lin | The Observer

Junior linebacker Jaylon Smith tracks the ballcarrier during Notre Dame’s 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl.

Smith led the Irish defense with 114 tackles this season, including nine tackles for loss. He also had a sack, a forced fumble and five pass breakups.

Smith led the 2014 Irish squad with 112 tackles after placing third on the team with 67 tackles during his freshman season in 2013, finishing with 293 tackles for his career.

Smith has an insurance policy worth up to $5 million if he falls out of the first round, according to ESPN’s Darren Rovell.

The NFL Draft will be held April 28-30 in Chicago.

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