This year has been one of adjustments for junior Stephon Tuitt.
Adjusting to life on the defensive line without mentor Kapron Lewis Moore. Adjusting after offseason hernia surgery and figuring out how to overcome a slow start. Adjusting on the fly after declaring his intention to return in 2014 before backing off.
This weekend’s clash with Air Force presents significant adjustments for Notre Dame against the Falcons’ triple-option attack. One player who need not adjust: Stephon Tuitt.
“All my life in high school [we played against] against option teams,” said the Monroe, Ga., native. “Option teams won’t be pretty bad, you just have to know they’re very tough people and the tough mentality they have. These people put their lives on the [line for their] country [and] for us and every game they go out there tough, so we have to match their mentality.”
When asked why so many high schools in Georgia opt to run the triple option, Tuitt provided one simple reason.
“Well you’ve got a bunch of fast people,” he said matter-of-factly about the talent-rich South.
At times this season, fans have wondered where the 2012 version of the 6-foot-6, 322-pound lineman went. As Tuitt explained Wednesday, he first needed to regain his confidence after surgery slowed him down the first few games.
“I’m fully healthy to go out every week and play hard and go out there and do what I have to do and what I’m supposed to do,” he said.
“[There] wasn’t much [frustration], it was just getting my confidence back under me. That was one of my setbacks. … The bye week helped a lot. It helped me be able to focus on my body a little bit, give me a chance to really get my confidence under me again.”
In the first game after Notre Dame’s bye week, against rival USC, his confidence was evident. Tuitt produced one of the most dominant performances by an Irish defensive lineman in the past 20 years with seven tackles, two sacks, two quarterback hurries and one pass breakup. At times, he seemed to be in the Trojan backfield as frequently as the USC running backs.
“He's continued to work hard in the weight room,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “He's continued to monitor his nutrition. He's doing the things we've asked him to do from post surgery on and I think it's just a collection of those things.
“He's played himself into the kind of condition and shape necessary for him to exert his physical prowess on the football field. Playing at a high volume of plays for a longer period of time.”
Through seven games of his junior season, Tuitt has notched 19 sacks during his Irish career and need only 5.5 to pass current New York Giant Justin Tuck atop the school’s record books. Tuitt said the pair spoke in person once when Tuck visited campus, but didn’t talk much football. Tuck, however, reached out to Tuitt on Twitter before the season started to show his support for junior as he chases the record.
“[A]re you going to break my sack record or what. I’ve had it long enough,” Tuck wrote on the social media platform.
For now, Tuitt wants to sideline any talk of the sack record along with the go-pro-or-stay decision.
“Right now I just go out every week and play hard and go into the games with a killer mentality and get what I can get,” Tuitt said. “… As we get closer, I’ll want that [record], but right now it’s just go out every week and play.”
Fifth-year senior left tackle and two-time captain Zack Martin said he has noticed a boost in Tuitt’s play and maturity as his time at Notre Dame has progressed.
“He’s done a great job of getting better each year,” he said. “I think this year he’s bigger and has combined that athleticism with more strength. It’s really kind of a scary combination to go against every week and we’ve been seeing that the last few weeks on Saturdays. He’s come a long way and has been working his butt off.
“He came in as a freshman, sometimes it takes a little [time to mature] and he’s grown each year with that too. He’s more of a guy who goes out there and works every day and we’ve definitely been able to see that growth through his three years here.”