Notre Dame football: Tuitt ready to make an impression

South Bend Tribune

ANN ARBOR, Mich. - Stephon Tuitt’s mind is blurred, perhaps purposefully, as he is asked to recall being a bystander in what may have been the loudest college football game ever, or at least among those staged north of Baton Rouge, La.

“I just remember a big, old stadium with a lot of yellow pompoms,” the introverted and extraordinary Notre Dame junior defensive end professed. “That’s it.”

Taylor Lewan will likely give Tuitt much more to remember, for better or worse, Saturday night than the scant memories of Notre Dame’s come-from-ahead 35-31 loss to soon to be ex-rival Michigan two years ago in the first-ever night game in Michigan Stadium history.

The two preseason All-Americans did tangle some in last year’s turnover-fest in South Bend, which Notre Dame navigated to a 13-6 victory, one of only two Irish wins in the past seven meeting between major college football’s two titans of winning percentage.

The 14th-ranked Irish (1-0) actually have a chance to pull even with No. 17 Michigan (1-0) for the top spot in that category Saturday night (8 EST; ESPN) — at least through three decimal points — for the first time since that distinction slipped away in 2004, coach Tyrone Willingham’s third and final season at ND.

The matchup between the 6-foot-6, 322-pound Tuitt and Lewan — a whimsical 6-foot-8, 315-pound fifth-year senior offensive tackle with a mustache tattoo on his right index finger and a linebacker-esque 4.7 40-time on his résumé — is THE game within the game.

At least on paper.

ND’s frequent drop into a 4-3 look from its base 3-4 typically pushes Tuitt inside, with outside linebacker Prince Shembo then in Lewan’s line of fire. Fellow end Sheldon Day tends to line up on Lewan’s side of the formation more often than not, but Irish head coach Brian Kelly certainly has the flexibility to force some head-to-head matchups.

“If you’re Notre Dame, you may not want Tuitt going against Lewan,” offered analyst Scott Wright of “You may want him going against (right tackle) Michael Schofield. It may give Tuitt a better opportunity to have more of an impact.

“You don’t want your best player to be canceled out by the other team’s best player. So I don’t know how many actual snaps we’re going to see Tuitt vs. Lewan. But, hey, if there are only five, there’s five great, great snaps for NFL scouts to evaluate both guys on.”

And if it’s more than five, it might also constitute the top individual matchup in college football anywhere this season, save South Carolina and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney possibly meeting Texas A&M and offensive tackle Jake Matthews in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game.

“Because of the pace the game moves at, we probably will not do the battle justice on television, just because of so many other things going on,” said Brent Musburger, who will handle the play-by-play duties for ESPN’s telecast Saturday night.

“But in the weeks to follow, it will probably get discussed a lot. And the one group that will be coming in to pay special attention to the coaching tape the next few weeks will be the scouts from the NFL. That’s a major test for both players, and it’s going to be good one.”

Lewan currently ranks No. 8 on ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s Big Board of 2014 NFL Draft prospects, with Tuitt three spots behind.

“I love it,” Tuitt said of the matchup. “You want to go out there with the best of the best. It’s how you become better.”

Tuitt, though, isn’t fully committed to entering the draft after this season, though he’s open to the possibility. More importantly, so is his mom, Tamara Bartlett, a no-nonsense, ultra-driven single mom and deputy sheriff in Gwinnett County, Ga., who works the graveyard shift at the jail to save money on daycare.

That she is open at all is a significant step, given her vision of Tuitt majoring in Pre-Med at Notre Dame and staying for all four years.

“I still would like for him to finish school, I’ll say that,” Bartlett told the South Bend Tribune in an interview this summer. “But I know he’s a 20-year-old, and we talked when he was here over his break (in May). I think we’re like open now. He knows the value of school, so whatever decision he makes, we’ll stand behind him 100 percent.”

Tuitt maintains his mind is a million miles away from the NFL, that the potential matchup with Lewan is all about playing within the framework of ND’s defense and the Irish sleeper national title hopes as well.

“The one thing I told him the first thing is first — helping Notre Dame become the best team it can be — period,” said Gator Browning, Tuitt’s mentor back in his home state of Georgia. “I said, ‘As far as the NFL is concerned, people are going to tell you that you can have this. People are going to tell you that you can have that. But you can’t listen to all that.

“‘They’re the same fools that, if anything goes wrong, they’re going to talk about you. You just have to remember, just keep the focus. Don’t focus on the NFL. If you don’t focus and you have a bad year, they can change their minds about you.’

“What we’re focusing on is the 2013 football season at Notre Dame and him doing his part to allow his team to get back to the national championship. Period. I said it to his mom; I said it to him.”

Draft or not, Lewan is the more proven commodity of the two. When he faced off against South Carolina’s Clowney — the No. 1 prospect in next May’s draft — last January at the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Fla., it was Clowney who got the SportsCenter love — over and over — for a vicious backfield hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith that separated him from the ball and his helmet.

“Besides that one play (explained as a miscommunication between Lewan and a right end), I think most people think Lewan won more of those battles with Clowney,” Wright said. “And the fact Lewan didn’t come out for the 2013 draft was one of the big shocks, especially him coming off that solid performance.

“I don’t think there was any question that Lewan would have gone in the top dozen picks last year, and the top five would have been a possibility. So, in that respect, I think Tuitt has a lot more riding on this game than Lewan does. Tuitt’s ranking is based more on potential than performance.

“One of the big knocks on (Tuitt) is that he racked up his production last year against inferior competition. I think NFL teams want to see him do well against the Michigans, the USCs the Stanfords. They want to see him be a difference-maker in those types of games.”

The top draft prospect in Saturday night’s game, though, is Irish senior nose guard, Louis Nix, who may turn out to be the most impactful presence in the trenches Saturday night, given his prowess and the fact that Michigan’s three interior line starters — sophomores Graham Glasgow and Jack Miller, and redshirt freshman Kyle Kalis — will each be making their second collegiate start.

Kiper has Nix third on his big board, behind only Clowney and Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater.

A would-be defensive line starter for the Irish, University of South Florida junior defensive end Aaron Lynch, ironically, will be playing 85 miles away in East Lansing, Mich., on Saturday against Michigan State. Lynch transferred out of ND after a mostly promising freshman season in which he played in every game but the one against Michigan.

Tuitt was held out of that game, too, and Kelly was roundly criticized for it.

“We were young,” Tuitt said of their absence in the lineup. “We probably weren’t ready yet. We were just pups, but it’s different now.”

Tuitt said he does still keep in regular contact with Lynch.

“He’s a man, and he makes his own decisions,” Tuitt said this past summer. “He wanted to go somewhere else for his life, to be happy — and that’s the most important thing. As long as he’s happy with that and his family is happy with that, that’s all I care about.

“He’s a bro of mine, and if he ever needed help, I’ll be there to help him. It was a tag-team mission to come here and do something special. It didn’t work out for him. Sometimes life doesn’t work out the way that you want it to, but you have to move on from that.”

Lewan, like Tuitt, had to evolve from humble beginnings.

He was actually a high school defensive end for his first three seasons — at Cactus Shadows High School in Cave Creek, Ariz. But Lewan changed positions and schools his senior season and led Scottsdale Chaparral High — the same school that sent ND’s Davonte’ Neal for a year — to an Arizona prep state title.

Lewan redshirted at Michigan as a freshman, but became a starter by the fourth game of the following season. The early years were pocked with false starts and personal foul penalties before maturity and consistency kicked in.

And now?

“Certainly, we're not going to be able to duplicate what he does during the week relative to the demo squad,” Kelly said earlier in the week. “We just know that we're going to have to do a great job.

“You know they want to get the ball outside your defense. So we have to be really good on the edge. We have to do a great job of keeping the ball inside our defense. So whoever is there has got to do a great job of making sure that they can control the edge of the defense. Sometimes you have to scheme it to make sure that we do that. He's that kind of player.”

And yet Tuitt smiles — about the potential matchup, about the deafening decibels about to greet him, about walking into Michigan Stadium as the team projected by the Vegas oddsmakers to lose.

“The best thing about being an underdog is you can shock and surprise the world,” Tuitt said. “You go out there and play hard and just shut everybody up.”

Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt (7) will face a tough challenge Saturday night when he goes up against Michigan's Tayler Lewan. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER