Notre Dame football: Tuitt comment about 2014 ‘premature’

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Ultimately the declaration that reverberated through Notre Dame football’s fan base and the national media Wednesday night turned out to be all about being tongue tied.

In other words, nothing Tuitt.

Notre Dame junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt when prodded – again – in a one-on-one interview earlier this week with a reporter from ND’s student newspaper, The Observer, apparently gave an answer he figured would curtail the constant speculation about whether he would declare for the 2014 NFL Draft with a year of eligibility to burn.

Tuitt stated – prematurely and perhaps incorrectly – that he would return for his senior season. Simply put, according to those close to Tuitt – including his mother, Tamara Bartlett, long-time mentor and trainer Clifford “Gator” Browning and Kelly – the question hasn’t even been explored fully, let alone decided.

“He probably wished he could have answered a little bit better if he was asked the question again,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday night after practice as the 4-2 Irish continue to prep for arch-rival USC (4-2) Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV).

“No decisions will be made (about NFL Draft status) as long as I’m the head coach here until the end of the season. We won’t be making any announcements.”

Even with ND’s defense far off the dominant tract it took last season in driving the Irish to a BCS National Championship Game appearance, Tuitt and teammate Louis Nix continue to be projected as first-round selections in next May’s draft. Nix, a nose guard, is a senior academically but retains of fifth year of eligibility if he wants to pursue it, since he sat out his freshman year.

In ESPN analyst Mel Kiper’s latest Big Board prospect rankings, the 6-foot-6, 322-pound Tuitt is the No. 14 draft prospect overall, while Nix is sixth. MMQB’s Peter King has Tuitt 15th, Nix 19th and fifth-year senior offensive lineman Zack Martin 36th – or just beyond a first-round projection for Martin.

Tuitt has battled through some limiting and lingering after-effects from March sports hernia surgery. He has 18 tackles this season, a team leading 4.5 for less and three sacks, tied for the team lead with outside linebacker Prince Shembo. Tuitt also has been credited with seven quarterback hurries, a forced fumble and an interception for a touchdown.

Nix, meanwhile, has indicated the 2013 season is likely his last at ND, and he’ll have his degree in hand. Tuitt’s plan was to focus on helping the Irish win during the season and push the NFL thoughts into the background until he, Bartlett, Browning and the Irish coaches had a chance to research and discuss his options after the season.

That still remains the plan, per those close to Tuitt.

“With Stephon, I think you’re going to look at a strong family decision as being part of this,” Kelly said, “as well as his degree is going to be very central to this.”

Bartlett initially was completely closed to the idea of Tuitt leaving ND without earning his degree first, but softened last spring when she came to understand there is a business side to the decision in which timing could be critical and after Tuitt promised he would go back and finish if he did ultimately make the decision to come out early.

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

Reversing field?

Kelly winced when asked why his team diverted from its normal Thursday tradition before home games of practicing in Notre Dame Stadium.

“You know you’re going to get me in trouble,” he said after a long pause.

The Irish fourth-year coach managed to avoid the hot-button word that sends traditionalists into a tizzy – FieldTurf – in describing the circumstances. The Irish held their Thursday workout at their normal practice venue, the LaBar Practice Complex (which incidentally has the artificial surface FieldTurf on two of its three fields).

At Notre Dame Stadium, the field was re-sodded less than three weeks ago, two days after a divot-fest in ND’s 35-21 loss to Oklahoma on Sept. 28. The recent rain helped persuade Kelly not to test it Thursday.

“It (the field) has been covered,” Kelly said. “All of the reports have been positive, but we’re three weeks into it. … There is a bit of uncertainty when you don’t know what to expect, but we’re hoping for the best there.”

A celebration to remember

The tailgate before the USC game for the family of ND fifth-year senior linebacker Carlo Calabrese will be a little more restive and a lot more public Saturday.

That’s because the Calabreses will be celebrating the fifth-year anniversary of Calabrese’s mom, breast cancer survivor Annie, being cancer-free – a benchmark for cancer survivors when the odds of recurrence drop dramatically.

In marking the event, the Calabrese family will have the Clay Township pink fire truck “Izzy” on hand at the tailgate at the corner of Twyckenham and Edison, Saturday at 3 p.m., to help raise awareness for breast cancer and raise funds as well.

Squibs

-- Only one member of the Notre Dame football team made college football guru Phil Steele’s midseason All-America teams, which go four teams deep.

Offensive tackle Zack Martin made the second team.

A large contingent of Irish players flooded Steele’s All-Independent team, though there were some surprises there.

Wide receiver TJ Jones; offensive linemen Chris Watt, Nick Martin, Christian Lombard and Zack Martin; defensive linemen Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix; linebackers Prince Shembo and Carlo Calabrese; and cornerback Bennett Jackson made the first team (of two teams).

Running back George Atkinson III, injured linebacker Jarrett Grace and safety Matthias Farley were named to the second team.

There are seven independents in the FBS this year – Notre Dame, New Mexico State, BYU, Army, Navy, Idaho and FBS newcomer Old Dominion.

Irish quarterback Tommy Rees got aced out by first-teamer Taysom Hill of BYU and Taylor Heinicke of Old Dominion.

-- The local weather forecast, which several days ago included one model for lake-effect snow, has modified and should see temperatures dip only into the mid 40s during Saturday night’s game.

The last time USC played a game in the snow was Nov. 30, 1957, at Notre Dame Stadium. The Irish won, 40-12. It was 20 degrees.

-- USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron may want to make his halftime speeches more of a priority. The Trojans have been outscored, 42-17, in the third quarter this year, including 7-3 in Oregon’s debut – a 38-31 win over Arizona last Thursday.

Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt celebrates after an interception in the end zone for a touchdown against Michigan in 2013. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)