Defensive end Stephon Tuitt decided three years was enough at Notre Dame. The standout defender, who was the Irish's leading sack artist the past two seasons, will declare for the NFL draft. Tuitt spoke with SI.com about his rationale while thanking fans on Twitter for his three years in South Bend.
Thanks for a wonderful three years at the best University on earth. I will forever be IRISH.— stephon tuitt (@DOCnation_7) January 6, 2014
Tuitt joins defensive tackle Louis Nix III in leaving Notre Dame with eligibility on the table, with both players a good shot to be drafted in the first round. Their departure from the Irish's defensive front leaves two gigantic holes to fill.
It's a true changing of the guard for the Notre Dame defense. Coordinator Bob Diaco is now running the UConn football program. And when the Irish take the field this spring under new coordinator Brian VanGorder's direction, they'll have a front seven that features only Sheldon Day from the group that opened the 2013 season.
Diaco's departure alone signaled change to the defense. But the personnel on the Irish roster, as well as Kelly's hiring of VanGorder, a coordinator known for his attacking, 4-3 defense, gives us a few hints as to what the defense will look like.
The secondary should remain constant. While the Irish need to replace Bennett Jackson, freshmen Cole Luke and Devin Butler saw early playing time, and there's confidence that the young cornerbacks will be capable to fill Jackson's shoes. The safety play also needs to improve, but there's plenty of available talent to elevate the position.
Yet, the front seven remains a mystery, both because of schematic changes and unproven personnel. That's not to say there isn't talent. Anchoring the group will be linebacker Jaylon Smith. After earning a spot on 247Sports' True Freshman All-American Team, Smith will enter next season as one of the country's elite defensive playmakers.
Leading the defensive line will be Sheldon Day. Plagued by a lingering ankle sprain most of the season, Day failed to take a step forward during his sophomore season, but the defensive staff believes they have an elite player in Day.
Where he plays remains to be seen. At 6'2" and 290 pounds, Day has the size to be a disruptive defensive tackle, though not the type of two-gap, run-stopper that Nix was. Day doesn't have the ideal length to play defensive end, and a slide inside (not to mention a scheme change) could actually benefit his production.
But behind Smith and Day are mostly question marks. Inside linebacker Jarrett Grace looked like a future building block, but he's in the middle of a long recovery after breaking his leg against Arizona State. Ben Councell is rehabbing a torn ACL as well. Ishaq Williams enters his senior season with no roadblocks in front of him, but he has yet to play anywhere close to the 5-star ranking he brought with him to South Bend. Romeo Okwara is another intriguing piece at outside linebacker, though he's only played sparingly in his first two seasons.
On the defensive front, key veterans Tony Springmann and Chase Hounshell are both coming off major injuries. They'll be counted on to play big minutes. First year players Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell did some nice things during their debut seasons but will need to take huge steps forward. And a journeyman like Justin Utupo might have earned a fifth year, with the defensive line in desperate need of veteran leadership.
The wild card in all of this is a talented recruiting class. Early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti is coming off an impressive week at the Under Armour game and will be one of the early benefactors from Tuitt's departure. A handful of other edge players like Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner, Matt Dickerson and Jhonathon Williams could play as well.
Five freshman linebackers enter with something to prove. US Army All-American Nyles Morgan could be an immediate contributor at inside linebacker. Richard Yeargin III held his own in San Antonio as well. While Bob Diaco was slow to trust freshmen as anything more than complementary parts, the verdict is still out on how quickly VanGorder will use young players.
Talent doesn't seem to be the problem. Just about every defender on this roster was handpicked by this staff and highly recruited. But after having some key pieces in place for a few seasons, 2014 will be a new-look group, with Tuitt's departure the final brick.
Still, you can't help but look at the past two seasons and understand that things don't always go as expected. In 2012, the Irish rode a rebuilt secondary and unproven starters like Nix, Tuitt and Danny Spond into the school's record books. In 2013, preseason expectations for Nix, Tuitt and Prince Shembo all went unfulfilled as the defense crumbled.
After getting four seasons from Zack Martin, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert, Harrison Smith and Michael Floyd, Tuitt is the first three-and-out player since Kyle Rudolph was the first tight end taken in the 2011 draft. His departure opened the door for Eifert, who seized the opportunity and became the Irish's next All-American tight end.
Tuitt leaves a gaping hole in the defense. But great players leave. Finding his replacement will be one of the key's to the Irish's future.