Notre Dame has a dozen official high school senior football visitors scheduled to attend this weekend’s USC game, but head coach Brian Kelly’s staff maybe secured its top “verbal” of 2014 three days prior.
Junior Stephon Tuitt told Notre Dame's campus newspaper The Observer that he plans to return for his senior year in 2014.
On Wednesday evening, in an exclusive interview with the campus newspaper The Observer and its assistant managing editor Matthew DeFranks, Tuitt twice indicated his plans to bypass the NFL Draft next spring and return for his senior season with the Irish.
Generally ranked as one of the 20 picks in the 2014 NFL Draft, Tuitt and Notre Dame senior nose guard Louis Nix III are projected to become the first first-round picks along the Irish defensive line since Renaldo Wynn in 1997. Nix might be the lone prospect now after Tuitt’s statement.
“I'm coming back next year," Tuitt told The Observer. "I'm a junior. I still have one year.”
However, later on Wednesday night Tuitt went on Twitter and tweeted: “Can't Believe everything you read. Goodnight.” To add more intrigue, the tweet was deleted afterward.
Last year Tuitt became the first sophomore defensive lineman in Notre Dame history to receive first-team All-America notice from multiple outlets (CBSSports.com, Sports Illustrated and ESPN), and his second-team All-America recognition by the Associated Press also was the highest notice ever achieved by a Notre Dame sophomore defensive lineman by the AP. His 13 tackles for loss — 12 of them quarterback sacks — were the third-most ever by a Notre Dame sophomore, behind the 16 by Ross Browner in 1975, with Willie Fry adding 14 that same year.
Hernia surgery in the off-season, though, has had an effect on Tuitt’s performance this season. At 6-6, 322 pounds, he is listed about 20 pounds heavier than last year because the surgery prevented some off-season conditioning work. During Notre Dame’s 4-2 start he recorded 18 tackles, 4.5 for loss (three sacks), seven quarterback hurries, one forced fumble and a touchdown when he made a diving interception in the end zone of a desperate pass by Michigan’s Devin Gardner.
The middle of January has traditionally been the deadline for players to declare early for the NFL Draft, so he has until then to officially declare. Under Brian Kelly, only one player has declared early — tight end Kyle Rudolph in 2011, and he became the first player taken at his position.
Those who opted to forego the draft and return as seniors were receiver Michael Floyd in 2011, linebacker Manti Te’o and tight end Tyler Eifert in 2012, and Nix in 2013. Offensive left tackle Zack Martin wouldn’t have been an “early entry” in 2013 because he was a senior, but he still opted to return for a fifth season this year.
In addition to Rudolph, other Notre Dame players who were early entries in the NFL Draft prior to their senior years were wideout Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1991), fullback Jerome Bettis and cornerback Tom Carter (1993), cornerback Bobby Taylor (1995), running back Darius Walker (2007) and quarterback Jimmy Clausen and wideout Golden Tate (2010).