Notre Dame football: Decision for Tuitt overshadows bowl talk

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND - The machinations of getting 18- to 22-year-olds to forget about the warm-weather bowl destinations that were passed on and instead embrace smack-you-in-the-face cold that the New Era Pinstripe Bowl might bring isn’t terribly complicated.

“PlayStation 4s and gift cards for North Face jackets,” Notre Dame cornerback Bennett Jackson explained of just a sampling of the swag that will come the Irish players’ way when No. 25 ND (8-4) takes on Rutgers (6-6) Dec. 28 at Yankee Stadium in The Bronx.

Yet less than 24 hours after both teams officially acknowledged accepting invitations to the fourth rendition of the fledgling bowl game, the whys and wherefores of how this matchup came about got swallowed up by more intriguing big-picture tangents.

Like Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood firing three assistant coaches, including defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, in the hours that followed a 31-6 subduing of South Florida and ND transfer Aaron Lynch Saturday night in Piscataway, N.J.

Like Irish nose guard Louis Nix taking himself out of being able to travel with his team to New York by signing with an agent Friday in a sloppy parting of the ways with Notre Dame, unbefitting the standout contributor and cult hero he had evolved into.

Perhaps the most intriguing is that junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt hasn’t made a move toward an early exit yet, even though he’s projected to go in the top half of the first round of next May’s NFL Draft if he does forego his senior season.

“All we've done is put in his paperwork to get an evaluation from the NFL,” Kelly said Sunday after the team’s first pre-bowl practice. “We haven't really delved into the depth of that yet.”

Tuitt’s NFL projections held steady through a junior season that never approached the preseason All-America status that surrounded the 6-foot-6, 322-pounder from Monroe, Ga. Lingering ramifications from offseason sports hernia surgery cut into his explosiveness early in the season before a strong surge in productivity.

He still finished with comparable numbers to what he put up last season as far as tackles (45 in 12 games this year to 47 in 13 last year), but his tackles for loss and sacks were both way down from 2012 (7.5 from 13 in TFL, 6 from 12 in sacks). His quarterback hurries rose from nine to 13.

Tuitt’s numbers were better than two of the players he would be compared to in the draft — two juniors who are expected to make the jump into the draft pool. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney played in two fewer games. He has 35 tackles, 10.5 for loss, three sacks and four quarterback hurries.

USF’s Lynch, who came into ND in the same recruiting class as Tuitt then checked out during spring practice following their freshman seasons, finished with 30 tackles, 12.5 for loss, four sacks and four QB hurries for the struggling Bulls (2-10).

“It wouldn’t surprise me if Tuitt stayed in school,” analyst Scott Wright of DraftCountdown.com said. “That was kind of the buzz before the season — that he wasn’t a lock to come out. And ND is a program where a lot of guys have a tendency to go back to school rather than coming out early.

“But Tuitt’s in kind of a tricky situation. Clowney is projected to be the first defensive end taken, somewhere in the top three picks overall. Then there’s a gap. Who is the next defensive end who comes off the board?

“If Tuitt isn’t the favorite, he’s certainly in the conversation. And some of the other contenders for that spot — Stanford’s Trent Murphy and Clemson’s Vic Beasley — may end up playing outside linebacker. Tuitt is a true defensive end who can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. Sure, he could go back for his senior season and be a top 5, 10 guy next year. But he may already be in a position to be in the top 10 this year, just based on need and who’s available.”

So what would Kelly advise Tuitt to do?

“I think you have to measure out a lot of things in this process,” he said. “My personal opinion is one that they'll have to ask for.

“I think you come to Notre Dame to get a degree. I think getting your degree is very important in this whole process. But I think you look at Michael Floyd, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert — all those guys came back, got their degrees, went on and are having great careers in the NFL.”

Personnel matters

•Kelly acknowledged fifth-year senior offensive guard Chris Watt will miss his final game in a Notre Dame uniform after suffering a medial collateral ligament injury to his right knee in ND’s 27-20 loss at Stanford on Nov. 30 in the Irish regular-season finale.

Watt had been playing intermittently since suffering a PCL tear in the same knee Oct. 26 at Air Force. Junior Conor Hanratty is expected to start in his place.

“He's not going to need surgery,” Kelly said. “It's going to require immobilization. He's immobilized right now.”

•ND’s nose guard position got an important reinforcement back as senior Kona Schwenke practiced Sunday after being hampered for a little over a month with a high ankle sprain that limited his availability.

•Freshman wide receiver Corey Robinson (ankle) was the only player besides Watt whose injury status in the Stanford game affected his Sunday practice.

“He's a (moving) a little gingerly today,” Kelly said. “I think he's going to be fine.”

•Safeties Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate, suspended for the Stanford game because of a violation of teams rules, have been reinstated to the team, Kelly said.

•Kelly acknowledged senior reserves Lo Wood and Alex Welch have asked for and been granted their releases to spend their fifth year of eligibility somewhere other than ND. Both, though, are practicing with the Irish and could theoretically play in the game.

Talking about practice

•Kelly said the Irish will end up using only 10 of their unlimited allotment of pre-bowl practices. The next sessions will be Friday and Saturday. The team has final exams Dec. 16-20.

The Irish will leave for New York on Dec. 23 and practice at the New York Giants’ practice facility, the Quest Diagnostics Training Center, in East Rutherford, N.J. in the days leading up to the game. The players will be released to fly home at ND’s expense from New York after the bowl game, but must pay their own way back to campus.

•Kelly previously announced that he will coach ND’s quarterbacks and wide receivers coach Mike Denbrock will coordinate the offense during ND’s bowl prep in light of offensive coordinator/quarterbacks coach Chuck Martin’s recent departure to Miami of Ohio to be the RedHawks’ head coach.

But Kelly hasn’t decided yet who will call the plays during the game, a duty that was handled by Martin this past season and by Kelly most of his head coaching career prior to handing it off to Martin.

Kelly said he won’t look to fill Martin’s vacancy until after the bowl game and has yet to decide whether he’ll promote from within or go outside for the offensive coordinator position.

Squibs

•In addition to firing defensive coordinator Dave Cohen, Rutgers head coach Kyle Flood purged quarterbacks coach Rob Spence and offensive line coach Damian Wroblewski, according to the Tom Luicci of the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger.

Cohen, Luicci pointed out, was embroiled in a controversy involving cornerback Jevon Tyree. The latter charged he was “bullied and felt physically threatened by Cohen.” Rutgers is reportedly investigating the charges.

•For the second time in less than a month, the Irish moved into the top 25 on a weekend in which they did not play a game.

ND checked in at No. 25 in the latest AP poll, but were a far cry from making the coaches’ top 25, garnering just eight points compared to 76 from the AP voters. Kelly voted the Irish 25th. You can see his entire ballot, as well as the ballots of the other 61 coaches with a vote, here: http://www.usatoday.com/sports/ncaaf/ballots/.

Brian Kelly feels it would be in Stephon Tuitt's best interest to stay at Notre Dame for his senior season. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER