Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix were on display in Indianapolis this weekend, stating their case to be first-round picks in May's NFL draft. The two cornerstones of the Irish defense walked away from final years of eligibility to play on Sundays. Nix earned his degree, and Tuitt pledged to finish his in the near future.
Finding replacements for Nix and Tuitt will be one of the key objectives for spring practice. But it also might not be as hard as it looks. While the dynamic duo drew national attention, a star-in-waiting is already on campus.
Looking for a home run prediction? Expect Sheldon Day to have a more productive 2014 than Nix and Tuitt combined.
It's a bold statement. But it's well within the reach of Day, a rising junior who was on the verge of being the Irish's most productive defensive lineman last year until a high ankle sprain suffered against Purdue ruined his season.
Day's nightmare season was just a part of what went wrong for the Irish defensive front. The projected starting three, all players the Irish staff expected to be elite contributors, never had a chance to gel. Day, Nix and Tuitt, the strongest defensive line the Irish produced in recent memory, only played 23 snaps together over the season's final 10 games.
While Nix and Tuitt were prototypes, Day is an anomaly on the Irish defensive line. Under Bob Diaco, Day was the only defensive end the Irish recruited that was under 6'4", an "off-profile" fit for the Irish defense, something Kelly and his staff rarely did in their first three recruiting classes. But from the minute Day got on campus as an early enrollee, it was clear what the coaches saw in the Indianapolis native.
It's rare that a defensive lineman is able to step in and compete as a freshman. But Day did so in 2012, playing in all 13 games for the stout Irish defense, subbing in with Kapron Lewis-Moore and Tuitt while collecting 23 tackles and two sacks.
Heading into the 2013 season, while most of the talk was about his preseason All-Americans, Kelly raved about Day.
"I mean, I know all the talk is about Nix and Tuitt, but I can tell you, Sheldon Day is… just watch the film," Kelly said. "His first step quickness, he’s an impressive football player. I wouldn’t trade him for anybody on our football team right now. He’s as impressive of a football player that we have on our defense."
"Right now if there’s an eight-play drive, he does not come out of the game,” Kelly said Monday. "He’s the one that does not come out of the game. His work volume, his ability to go. His pass rush ability. He’s an outstanding football player."
We were only able to see glimpses of that player. Finally healthy against Pittsburgh, Day racked up 3.0 tackles for loss against the Panthers, overshadowing Nix, Tuitt and Panthers' All-American Aaron Donald.
Day is now the leading man of the Irish defensive front. With Brian VanGorder adjusting the team's scheme this spring, we could see Day in a variety of positions, utilizing his natural skills more to his advantage.
That means giving Day the opportunity to slide inside, attacking a single gap with his excellent speed and quickness. That alone will help the production of the defensive line, a group that doesn't necessarily have the personnel to play much of the traditional 3-4 that the Irish deployed the past few seasons.
Entering his third season, Day's ready to make the leap forward. With an open depth chart, a clean bill of health and a new system, the stars are aligning.