CULVER — The scale says Sheldon Day is down a modest five pounds from last season’s 290-pound playing weight, but the way it’s distributed is decidedly immodest.
“I feel like I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been,” the 6-foot-2, and yes chiseled, defensive tackle said Monday after the first practice of fall training camp for the Notre Dame football team.
He’s also the maddest he’s ever been in his time at ND, which helps explain the stunning physical transformation.
And he’s making other people mad – fellow interior lineman Jarron Jones, and ends Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams, to mention a few.
Day started a text chain as kind of a push-back to all the unflattering things that have been written, tweeted and implied over the past eight months about the team’s rebuilt defensive line, which collectively has fewer career starts (10) than sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith amassed by himself (13) last season. And Day has eight of those 10.
“People say we’re the weak link,” Day snarled. “So we started this chain. I just felt like it was my time to speak up and lead. The first year you absorb. The second year you kind of sit back and see the rights and the wrongs. And then the third year it’s that time to step forward and be that vocal voice.”
It’s something that the ND defense could have used last season when its leadership was scattered, and that showed up statistically.
Rookie NFL linemen Stephon Tuitt (Steelers) and Louis Nix (Texans) and then-outside linebacker Prince Shembo (Falcons) have all been subtracted from the mix, and it could be argued all three underachieved in 2013 after a strong showing by all three in 2012.
Day’s own numbers (33 tackles, 5.5 for loss) were mitigated by spotty health. He started just eight of the 13 games in 2013 because of that and missed two all together.
“We want the target on our backs now,” Day said.
The text chain was much more than a way to vent. It was a way to answer back. It was how the defensive linemen set the bar for workouts, how they synched up their progress and their ire.
“Why I’m confident we won’t be a weak link is our work ethic though the spring and the summer,” Day said. “We’re pushing each other to the max, and it kind of show up today. We’re going to have fun, but we also want to dominate the offense.”
Seven of the players in the backup ranks at defensive line are true freshmen, so there’s not much of a safety net if their high expectations don’t work out.
The starters beyond Day are a mix of a former five-star prospect (Williams) with his last chance to flourish, a 19-year-old junior (Okwara) whose raw skills still overshadow his production, and a one-time project (Jones), whose star began to rise late last season with a position change.
“Once he got that opportunity, we just kept talking to him about ‘You’ve got to mature. You’ve got to mature.’” Day said of the 6-6, 315-pound junior Jones. “He’s taking everything serious now and not taking anything for granted. He’s kind of stepping up to the plate and helping us move this D-line in the right way.”
Day himself didn’t have to go through that transformation, something he attributes to his mother.
“She’s the leader in our house,” Day said. “It’s her way or the highway. She’s always talking about being the mature in the situation, that if something happens, sometimes you have to walk away. That just kind of stuck with me.
“She’s also a very competitive woman, who’d do anything for her family. I think she instilled all those characteristics in us.”