There were numerous stars on the Notre Dame defense who were overshadowed by middle linebacker Manti Te'o last season, and defensive end Stephon Tuitt was one of them.
Tuitt was the Fighting Irish's best pass-rusher last season. As a sophomore, he led the team with 12 sacks, which ranked him among the top 15 players in the FBS at taking down the quarterback.
Tuitt is now entering his junior season, which could be his last in South Bend, Ind. Should he declare as an underclassman, Tuitt projects as one of the top defensive end prospects in the 2014 NFL draft.
Throughout the months of June and July, we are looking ahead to the 2014 draft here at Bleacher Report and breaking down 10 of the top defensive linemen in the upcoming draft class.
Tuitt isn't the first Notre Dame defensive lineman on the list. Two weeks ago, we took a closer look at nose tackle Louis Nix III, who projects to be the best prospect on the Notre Dame defense this year.
That said, Tuitt isn't far behind Nix. He doesn't have as much upside at his position as Nix, but he does project as a very solid defensive end prospect, especially for teams who run 3-4 defensive schemes.
Let's take a closer look at why Tuitt could be an early selection if he declares for the 2014 NFL draft and also where scouts will be looking for him to improve in his junior season.
Physical Attributes: Great Measurables, Limited Burst
Listed at 6'6" and 303 pounds by Notre Dame’s official athletics website, Stephon Tuitt has ideal size for the 5-technique defensive end position in the 3-4 defense. He backs up his size with good strength and combines it with good athleticism.
Tuitt is not necessarily an overpowering player, but he has the strength to hold up well at the point of attack and to drive blockers back as a bull-rusher. He has the long arms desired for an NFL defensive lineman.
Tuitt has very good movement skills for a player of his size. He has quick feet and changes direction fluidly. He is not restricted to making plays at the line of scrimmage, as he moves well in space and can make plays both outside the tackles and by tracking down runners downfield.
While Tuitt is a very good overall athlete for his size, one of his biggest weaknesses is his lack of an explosive burst off the line of scrimmage. While he has overcome his limited explosion to put up big numbers already at the collegiate level, his playmaking ability could be limited by this weakness at the next level.
Tuitt rarely beats blockers off the snap due to his lack of first-step quickness. While he is good at moving his feet and covering ground, he has neither great acceleration nor speed for a pass-rushing defensive end.
Scouts will have to determine whether Tuitt's other measurable strengths and technical skills will be enough for him to overcome his below-average burst, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to be an impact player as an NFL defensive lineman.
Examining Tuitt's Pass-Rushing Skills
Tuitt's limited explosion forces him to rely upon his strength and technical skills to succeed as a pass-rusher. This could actually be a benefit to Tuitt in his NFL transition. While he is not a high-upside speed-rusher who will explode by his opponents, he is a well-polished defensive end for a player only entering his junior season.
Tuitt is strong and physical with his hands. He demonstrates the ability to beat blockers both inside and around the edge with strong rip and swim hand techniques.
While Tuitt lacks the speed and acceleration of a prototypical edge-rusher, he is a natural bender who turns the corner with a smooth arc. He takes very good angles around linemen to pressure the quarterback.
The biggest concern for Tuitt coming around the edge will be his ability to get around blockers. When he is able to break free and get a lane to the quarterback, he takes great angles in pursuit and has enough speed to track quarterbacks down in the pocket.
A good example of Tuitt's ability as a pass-rusher in pursuit came when he sacked Robert Marve last season versus Purdue, as can be seen below in the following clip courtesy of Draft Breakdown:
When he is unable to get around his opponent, Tuitt has the strength to take them on straight ahead as a bull-rusher. While he does not quite have the power to blow up many plays by driving opponents back, he can generate pressure as both an outside and inside bull-rusher by obtaining leverage and resiliently using his strength and size to generate momentum.
In addition to playing defensive end, Tuitt also lines up often as a 3-technique defensive tackle for Notre Dame and is used frequently there as an inside pass-rusher. At the next level, Tuitt is likely to be most effective as an interior rusher, whether that be as a situational 3-technique in a 4-3 defense, or as a 5-technique defensive end in a 3-4.
Tuitt's strength, length and ability to get by blockers with his hands all serve him very well as an inside rusher, while his subpar burst is less of an issue inside. He has the size to hold up against interior offensive linemen, while he is good at working his way into gaps between linemen to bring pressure to the quarterback.
The following example of an inside rush last season versus Michigan State, a play on which Tuitt hit the quarterback and forced a fumble, shows his ability to beat blockers inside. He then uses his pursuit speed to track down the quarterback in the pocket:
In the right scheme, Tuitt could actually end up being better suited to be a pass-rusher at the next level than he is against collegiate offenses. Tuitt's lack of explosion gets exposed most significantly by spread offenses predicated upon quick, short passing, which he will not see as often at the next level.
Tuitt can be a dangerous pass-rusher when the opposing quarterback spends multiple seconds in the pocket allowing a play to develop, as Tuitt can use his skills to beat a blocker and bring heat on the passer. He does not have the quickness off the snap nor the speed, however, to frequently pressure quarterbacks who quickly throw the ball or take off outside of the pocket.
One area where Tuitt must technically improve is in his ability to disengage from pass protection. While he is effective at initiating moves against blockers to beat them, he tends to become stagnant when an opposing blocker initiates contact and establishes control. He needs to become better at continuing to hand-fight to break free from pass protection and therefore impact more plays as a pass-rusher.
Tuitt's Skills vs. The Run
Tuitt is a very solid run defender who uses his size and strength well to hold gaps and shut down running lanes.
Tuitt does not blow up many running plays in the backfield, but he rarely gets driven back and out of the running lanes he defends. He is a disciplined player who does a good job holding his assignments. That said, he also has the instincts to react to runs that go away from him, and the foot skills to get in on downfield run stops.
One of Tuitt's best assets as a run defender is his playmaking range. With his ability to change directions in space and keep his feet moving, he has shown not only that he can get downfield to make run stops, but also that he can pursue plays out to the sideline.
An impressive example of Tuitt's ability to get to the sideline and make a play against the run also came last year versus Michigan State.
Tuitt initially tried to penetrate inside and drew a triple-team block, but when Spartans quarterback Andrew Maxwell rolled right out of the pocket, Tuitt did a great job to change direction and chase Maxwell out to the right sideline, tripping him up just a couple yards past the line of scrimmage for a crucial 3rd-and-long defensive play:
Tackling is also one of Tuitt's strengths. He is a technically sound tackler who consistently wraps up opposing ball-carriers and drives them to the ground. He has also shown the ability to lunge at ball-carriers' legs to take them down.
Tuitt isn't known for making big plays in the backfield against the run, with only two career tackles for loss that were not sacks. But while he may not necessarily be a big-play run-stopper, he is a very solid run defender who will hold his ground and shut down running lanes while also having the ability to break into space and make tackles.
Projecting Tuitt's Fit and Draft Stock
While Tuitt has a well-rounded game that should draw looks from many NFL teams, his value should certainly be higher to 3-4 teams as a 5-technique defensive end than it will be at other traditional spots in a 4-3 defense.
Although he does not have great explosion, even for an interior defensive lineman, he has terrific measurables for a 3-4 defensive end. He has the length and size to be an effective two-gap player, as he does a good job of clogging running lanes and sustaining double-team blocks.
With proven ability as both an outside and inside pass-rusher and also as a run-stopper, Tuitt has the potential to become a three-down starter on a three-man defensive front.
If Tuitt is drafted into a 4-3 defense, he could be used in a similar role to Derek Wolfe of the Denver Broncos. Tuitt could be a very solid run-stopping defensive end in a four-man front but is better suited to play inside as a pass-rusher given his size and subpar speed and acceleration.
His draft stock could also end up being similar to Wolfe's, who was the No. 36 overall pick in the 2012 NFL draft. Tuitt could end up being a mid-to-late first-round pick, especially if a team with a 3-4 defense falls in love with his skill set to play defensive end for them. His limited explosiveness, however, makes him better suited to be a second-round draft choice.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.