Notre Dame football: Day ready for the torch
If the Notre Dame defensive line is going to have a bright future, Sheldon Day will have to be a key component.
He is the cornerstone on which the next two years will be built.
Since there's no guarantee that junior end Stephon Tuitt's Notre Dame career will extend beyond Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl against Rutgers, Day, a 6-foot-2, 290-pound sophomore tackle, is the top known commodity and best bet to emerge as an impact player.
This season has been one long and disjointed road for Day, in particular, and the Irish defensive line, in general.
An ankle injury early in the season never really healed. Almost a month after Notre Dame's last regular-season game, Day is finally able to smile and say his wheels are at full strength.
"My ankle's doing great," Day said. "I'm out there, feeling explosive, fast — feeling back to normal (for the first time since the Michigan game).
"I wouldn't call (the season) frustrating, just a long process. I'd step back, make some gains forward, then I'd get set back again. Just a long season.
"I've been trying to keep a positive attitude and figure out a way to get better every day."
Despite the pain and limited mobility, Day still managed to play in 10 games, starting seven. He accumulated 31 tackles and five tackles for loss.
"Sheldon was shaking off that high ankle sprain that set him back most of the season," Irish head coach Brian Kelly said of the stumbling blocks the youngster faced. "He started to play fairly effectively for us the last couple weeks."
Day's ailments complicated an already-difficult situation on the defensive line. Tuitt just wasn't his normal productive self through the first half of the season, then, by midseason, Louis Nix battled knee problems that finally ended his year prematurely.
"(Losing Nix) was definitely a blow, but everyone has a part in this team; next man in," Day said, quick to spout the company line. "It's just picking up slack."
Star power suffered drastically.
"(Defensive line) coach (Mike) Elston is doing a great job with us, helping us move our game forward," Day said. "I have great confidence (in the young guys on the defensive line)."
Remember, that's a sophomore saying that. In football years though, with 23 college games already under his belt, he has earned his stripes.
"Sheldon's been a great player since he got here," said senior defensive lineman Kona Schwenke. "This year, he's a lot more explosive player. He has a very good football intelligence. He knows a lot about the game and about the different schemes that we have. He's come a long, long way.
“Only to be a sophomore in college, it's really pretty amazing."
"I've moved forward (from freshman year) in just about everything — my hands, my get-off — just improved my overall game," Day said.
He hasn't done it alone. For the past two years, Tuitt and Nix have taken Day under their collective, really big wing and have served as mentors.
The apprentice is now in a position to take those lessons and apply them to his bid to step up his game.
"Louis' (lesson is his) competitive side, always willing to go after it no matter what," Day said. "Stephon, the will to never give up. He's a relentless pass rusher. I learned that from Stephon."
Before he inherits the responsibility for the defensive line, there's one challenge left for Day and his mates. While Rutgers is hardly an offensive juggernaut, the Scarlet Knights have had subtle success. They rank 97th in the country running the ball (133.7 yards a game) and 52nd passing (242.3).
The Irish defense, meanwhile, is a pedestrian 76th against the run (175.3) and 18th against the pass (201.7).
"(Rutgers has) great athletes; a big offensive line that plays well together," Day said. "We still have a lot to prepare for.
"(A bowl victory) can give you more energy in the offseason. I haven't experienced that because I'm only a sophomore and haven't won, but coming off a win can be nothing but positive."
And right now, it's all about the future.