There used to be an era when Notre Dame would have dynamic defensive line tandems almost yearly: First-round picks Alan Page and Kevin Hardy (1964-66), Walt Patulski and Mike Kadish (1969-71), Steve Niehaus and Mike Fanning (1974), and Ross Browner and Willie Fry (1975-77) — although Fry did drop to the second round.
Sophomore Sheldon Day continues to excel with his strong fundamentals and work ethic.
Now in 2013, the program that was once known as “Defensive Line U.” is back in operation with senior nose guard Louis Nix III and junior end Stephon Tuitt. It’s hardly a coincidence that they were vital centerpieces or cornerstones of Notre Dame’s drive last year to the BCS National Championship Game while finishing fourth in the country against the run (92.4 yards allowed per game) during the regular season.
Tuitt became the first Notre Dame sophomore defensive lineman to receive first-team All-America notice from multiple media outlets — CBSSports.com, Sports Illustrated and ESPN — and the first to even place on the Associated Press’ first three All-America teams by earning a spot on its second unit.
Even more remarkable is Tuitt played the second half of the 2012 campaign with an injury that required hernia surgery. Through the first seven games last season, Tuitt had 28 tackles with eight sacks. Over the last six he recorded 19 tackles and five sacks and still remained productive … but by his immense standards and ability, it was sub-par.
“It affected him a tremendous amount,” Fighting Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston said. “His production went down, his confidence in his play went down and that’s something we need to work on to making sure we can get that back this fall.
“He’s to be commended for fighting through it. That’s a tough injury, and he fought through that for however many weeks and was a very serviceable player. He’s the kind of guy that wants to change the game, and physically he was unable to change the game. But he fought through it and did a great job.”
Around the sixth or seventh week, Tuitt approached Elston and noted that he was having problems loosening up his hips.
“When it wasn’t right for him in his pelvic area, his lack of explosiveness, his lack of athleticism [in] twisting his hips, making certain pass rush moves, getting off blocks. … When you throw off a block, your hips are moving, and so all those little things that came natural to him, when he was injured it became a sticky point. It didn’t feel right.”
The offseason surgery led to some inactivity this winter, and Tuitt added at least 20 unwanted pounds to his chiseled 303-pound frame from last season. The Notre Dame strength and conditioning staff headed by Paul Longo will endeavor to get Tuitt back to no more than 315 pounds by the time the season commences.
Tuitt did not partake in some of the early contact work this spring, but he is now back to full go and is projected to see action in the April 20 spring game. His 12 sacks last season were far and away the most ever by an Irish sophomore since the stat was first kept separate in 1982 (Justin Tuck’s five in 2002 is a distant second).
Making a lot of those plays possible was Nix’s presence in the middle as the anchor of the defense. His control of the line of scrimmage with his 326-pound frame — which can easily fluctuate into the 340-pound range — made him the ultimate facilitator for others, including consensus All-American and graduated Mike linebacker Manti Te’o.
“Without him, there are a lot of runs that wouldn’t be stopped,” Tuitt summarized.
Although Nix’s persona in the interview room projects comic relief that will likely make him a popular television personality some day, Elston said seldom has he seen a more ferocious competitor.
“He’s trying to impact every single play,” Elston said. “He’s forcing the offense to do things that they’re not necessarily going to have to do against other teams because of how he plays. … That’s a very important player that can change the game at any time, and he changes the mindset of those offensive linemen across from him. They really have to pay attention to him.”
Nix bypassed the NFL Draft to return for his senior campaign. Elston’s goals for him include improving basic rudimentary elements such as footwork and hand placement, but he would especially like to see him emerge as a consistent communicator and leader by example throughout the week, not just on Saturdays.
The graduated and underrated Kapron Lewis-Moore supplied that type of leadership last year. Sophomore Sheldon Day is practically the mirror image of Lewis-Moore as a leader and providing a strong mental attitude to the overall program. Physically, Day does not fit the classic “profile” the Irish seek at the four-technique. At 6-2, 286 pounds, he is two inches shorter and about 20 pounds lighter than Lewis-Moore was.
However, his maturity and technique are far advanced, especially coming from Warren Central, perhaps the premier high school program in Indiana. As an early enrollee last spring, Day made an instant impression on Elston with his advanced skills and “old soul” maturity, and his freshman year production (23 tackles, including two sacks) ranked among the top half-dozen along the defensive line by an Irish freshman since rookie eligibility was permitted in 1972. There is no proverbial sophomore jinx lurking for Day, who Elston said is enjoying an “excellent” spring.
“He’s a student of the game,” Elston praised. “It’s important to him, and that’s not just in football — it’s his whole life. He’s just got it all put together and it starts with his home life. … He just does everything you ask him to do. He’s coachable. When he doesn’t do it right, you tell him and he fixes it.”
Earlier this spring, Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted that despite the presence of Nix and Tuitt, no one on the line could shed blockers better than Day. When the Notre Dame staff recruited Day, among the “measureables” they looked at was arm length.
“You recruit a short guy, he’s got to compensate in other areas,” Elston explained. “And his initial quickness and his length — his arm length is very long — when he locks [senior offensive tackle] Zack Martin out, it’s not a short-guy lockout. It’s a big-guy lockout. So he’s able to get the guy off of him so he can disengage and go make plays.
“If you’re going to recruit a shorter guy, you’ve got to measure their arms to make sure they’re going to have the length to keep those guys [off].”
A year ago at this time, Kona Schwenke was actually lining up as the top nose guard while exerting better effort than Nix, and Tony Springmann was trying to recover from back surgery. Now, the senior Schwenke provides quality relief behind Nix with fifth-year senior Tyler Stockton, while the junior Springmann can align at any of the line positions, where he excelled in a reserve capacity last spring and will continue to have a similar role this season.
Senior Justin Utupo, now in the 280-pound range, has shown enough at end to work with the second team, ahead of 300-pound sophomore Jarron Jones, who arrived with a larger frame than classmate Day but lacked the football fundamentals for the big-time level, while also needing to progress in his mental approach to the game and his everyday actions and consistency.
“Jarron is starting to play like a freshman in college,” Elston said. “He was playing like a high school senior a year ago in terms of his immaturity, his lack of aggressiveness. Now, he’s got this great big body and starting to throw that around and become more of an aggressive player.
“He wasn’t a soft player by any means, but he just wasn’t as aggressive as we needed him to be. That aggressiveness has allowed him to move his game forward. That’s the biggest improvement he’s made.”
It will be needed moving forward if Notre Dame is to reclaim its status from yore as one of college football’s premier assembly lines for defensive line talent.