Notre Dame football: Kelly sizes up rumors about Tuitt’s physical condition, drive

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - Clifford “Gator” Browning digested the reports with a confused silence.

The loud buzz around the Notre Dame football program over the past week, that more than hinted that preseason first-team All-America defensive end Stephon Tuitt had allegedly softened mentally and physically heading into the most defining football season of his life, didn’t match the Tuitt who Browning knows.

Nor the one Irish head coach Brian Kelly knows, either.

Overblown? Out of context?

“I talk to Tuitt and the (Irish) coaches a lot,” said Browning, Tuitt’s mentor back in Georgia and the man who assisted in rebuilding Tuitt’s fractured confidence and helped him take the first meaningful steps in May toward regaining the dominating physical form that predated a 2012 midseason sports hernia.

“He’s in beast mode right now.”

He’s also been put on the defensive.

The 6-foot-6 junior and projected top 10 pick in next May’s NFL Draft is not the 307-pound offensive coordinator’s nightmare he was in the first half of his sophomore season. In time, though, he may be better.

By both Browning’s and Kelly’s accounts, Tuitt is more driven.

But what about the weight gain that fueled the rumors and all the dots those connected to?

Tuitt slogged through spring practice at 322 pounds shortly after undergoing hernia surgery in March. It was suggested to him by the coaching staff that he may want to just skip spring practice all together, but Tuitt insisted on getting his work in. By his own accounts, he was at 60 percent effectiveness.

That after grinding the second half of last season with the injury. He still ended up with a team-high 12 sacks, 1½ short of Justin Tuck’s single-season school record set in 2003. He enters the 2013 season trailing Tuck by 10½ on the career sack list.

“Look the kid had a hernia operation,” Kelly said after practice Saturday. “He couldn’t do core exercises for over 3½ months. We had to change his whole summer workout.

“You know, you’ve seen what our guys look like, and he looks different, because he put on some body fat our guys normally don’t put on, because he couldn’t do some of the workouts that our guys do. It wasn’t because he decided to eat Cheetos on the couch and not work out.”

Still, in between the end of spring semester and the start of summer school, Tuitt went back to his roots in the Atlanta area and reconnected with Browning, a 32-year-old CEO of a football recruiting consulting firm — Top Knotch Opportunities LLC — as well as a trainer and football coach.

Whatever workout wasn’t off-limits, Tuitt and Browning ventured into it together -- pool workouts, boxing, running up and down Georgia landmark Stone Mountain.

When he returned to the Notre Dame campus in early June, Tuitt put up 465 pounds on the bench press.

“He’s on point to have a really good (junior) season,” Browning said. “If I thought anything different, I’d be the first one to be all over him. That’s the way I was when he came to my door in May — all over him.

“The one thing I’d tell him now is, ‘Keep playing ball, man. You know what you can do. I know you’re in good shape and getting better.’ I don’t know why anybody would try to make it out to be anything different.”

Word is Tuitt is projected to play this season at 310, and that as of Saturday he’s already halfway to reaching that goal.

“He’s bringing that body fat down, but he’s stronger physically than he was last year,” Kelly offered. “We’ll get that down. That’s easy to whittle that down.

“His (work) volume is at where it was last year, so we didn’t lose any of his volume. ... I know he’s been asked a lot of questions, and I want to kind of defend the kid a little bit in this instance — - he didn’t go off the reservation and decide that he was just going to eat bad food.

“He’s done what we’ve asked him to do.”

Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt, (7) at right, hits linebacker Austin Larkin (52) at practice Saturday, Aug. 17, 2013, at LaBar Practice Complex. SBT Photo/GREG SWIERCZ