The 750-plus pounds of All-America linemen on Notre Dame’s defense cast a long shadow, but not one big enough or dark enough to hide sophomore Sheldon Day.
Sophomore defensive end Sheldon Day recorded 23 tackles and two sacks while playing 10-15 snaps per game as a true freshman in 2012.
Senior nose guard Louis Nix III and junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt are both projected as first-round picks in the NFL next spring and candidates for awards presented to the best defender in the country. According to head coach Brian Kelly, Day gives opponents no drop-off or weak link to attack in the trenches.
“I know all the talk is about Nix and Tuitt, but I’ll tell you Sheldon Day, you just watch the film … he’s an impressive football player,” Kelly said Monday afternoon. “I wouldn’t trade him for anybody on our football team right now. He is as impressive of a player as we have on defense.”
Day (6-2, 290 pounds) doesn’t have the mass Nix has in the middle of the defense or the overall size of a dominant defensive end like Tuitt. He makes up for it with a first-step quickness praised by the whole coaching staff and the best hand-to-hand combat skills of anyone in the Irish trenches.
As a true freshman in 2012, Day played at most 10-15 snaps per game behind fifth-year senior Kapron Lewis-Moore. He landed on the field in all 13 games and made 23 tackles, two of them sacks. This year he’ll start in Lewis-Moore’s vacated spot ahead of a second layer of depth that includes three upperclassmen. Day said his main objective while working with strength coach Paul Longo this summer was to increase the time he could stay on the field.
“We worked on my conditioning and trying to get focused of the season,” Day said. “I feel like coach Longo did a great job with me.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Day had a contagious energy on the practice field this spring. Kelly said this week that the sophomore is capable of staying on the field longer than either of his celebrated counterparts.
“Right now if there is an eight-play drive, he does not come out of the game. He’s the one that does not come out of the game,” the coach said. “His work volume, his ability to go, his pass-rush ability, he’s an outstanding football player.”
Without the prototypical specs of a pass rusher, Day uses his hands instead of his size to keep offensive linemen from engaging him in blocks and to slip past them with speed. He said defensive line coach Mike Elston taught him to lock out opponents with stiff arms and ran him through bag drills to make him more of a threat to the quarterback moving forward.
Day doesn’t shy away from his natural tendencies to speak up despite his youth and the stature of his linemates, Tuitt and Nix. As early as January, he talked about becoming a vocal leader for Notre Dame’s defense in his second season in South Bend. Starting a semester early gave Day a comfort level he would not have otherwise had. Three semesters with Lewis-Moore helped him define the delicate balance between stepping up as a leader and reaching too far as an underclassman.
“I don’t think that’s something I worry about,” he said. “I feel like each of the players have some respect. We know our boundaries and when we cross them. We know when not to talk, and I feel like we have a good chemistry.”