Notre Dame football: Irish have big hole to fill with loss of Tuitt
The dangling thread of logic that wouldn’t go away until Sunday night’s declaration was that junior Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt might have seen himself as an unfinished product.
Business sense, ambition and potential eventually overtook that notion as Tuitt pushed aside conflicting projections and hopped into the 2014 NFL Draft pool, leaving behind his final season of college eligibility but taking with him the promise to his mother, Tamara Bartlett, that he will find a way to finish his degree work somehow, someday.
Tuitt’s longtime mentor, coach Clifford “Gator” Browning, confirmed the decision to the South Bend Tribune. Sports Illustrated was the first to report Tuitt leaving Notre Dame.
“It wasn’t an easy decision, but it’s one Tuitt feels comfortable with,” Browning said Sunday night. “He has so much respect for Notre Dame, coach (Brian) Kelly and the Notre Dame fans, but at the end of the day, this is something he wanted to do.”
The 6-foot-6, 322-pound Tuitt becomes the second Irish player in this cycle to leave ND before his college eligibility expired, joining nose guard Louis Nix, a senior who finished his degree work last month but who had a fifth-year option.
Both players are projected as not only first-rounders, but top 15 picks in the May 8-10 draft by most draft analysts. However, Tuitt received a draft projection of second-round selection for the NFL Draft Advisory Board.
"They're notoriously conservative," analyst Scott Wright, of DraftCountdown.com, said of the advisory board.
Wright has Tuitt going 11th overall in the first round, to the Tennessee Titans, in his latest mock draft -- one pick after he has Nix heading to Pittsburgh.
Wright has South Carolina junior Jadeveon as the top defensive end in the draft and the third pick overall.
"After Clowney there's a dropoff at the defensive end position,” he said. “There's a lot to like about (Tuitt)."I think it's a good decision (to come out), just because he's probably going to go so early this year."
A third potential returning player, junior tight end Troy Niklas, also is pondering an early entry after receiving a second-round grade himself. Cincinnati Bengals rookie tight end Tyler Eifert said Friday the two were planning to discuss Niklas’ options. Eifert in 2011, turned away the temptation to enter the draft and came back for his senior season, though he did opt out of a potential fifth year for 2013.
Tuitt, a preseason All-American coming into 2013 by a gaggle of publications and news services, didn’t post the kind of numbers to get him the same kind of postseason attention – 49 tackles (nine tackles for loss, seven sacks), an interception, a forced fumble, 13 quarterback hurries, two pass breakups.
But ND’s No. 3 career sack leader fought through lingering issues from offseason sports hernia surgery and was particularly effective from October on.
The void he leaves on the Irish defensive line is profound, from both a productivity and experience standpoint. With sophomore Jarron Jones and recovering junior Tony Springmann (knee surgery) expected to man the nose guard position, the only defensive end on the 2014 Irish roster with more than 10 career tackles will be sophomore Sheldon Day.
Freshman Isaac Rochell figures to be heavy in the mix as will junior Chase Hounshell if he’s healthy. Hounshell, who has undergone three surgeries on the same shoulder in the past couple of years, hasn’t played since 2011, when he had four tackles.
ND’s other strong options appear to be redshirted freshman Jacob Matuska and a group of incoming freshmen highlighted by early enrollee Andrew Trumbetti. Matt Dickerson, Jonathan Bonner and Grant Blankenship are the others.
It’s possible Kelly could move an outside linebacker – Ishaq Williams, Ben Councell or Romeo Okwara – to end, but that would leave most of the depth at those positions to be filled by freshmen.
Seldom-used junior Anthony Rabasa has been listed at end during his career, as has undersized junior Justin Utupo, the latter of whom is not expected to be invited back for a fifth year.