Brian Kelly expects Sheldon Day to be impact guy for Notre Dame

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Hard for a 6-foot-2, 285-pound guy with shoulder-length dreadlocks to be inconspicuous – even on the Notre Dame football team.

But when Sheldon Day was on the defensive line with Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix last season – and add in Kapron Lewis-Moore two years ago – there’s a chance that the big man was getting overlooked.

Not anymore.

Maybe it just seems like Day has been at defensive tackle forever. The junior from Warren Central High School in Indianapolis played in 24 games his first two seasons with the Irish, rolling up 56 tackles and nine tackles for loss.

But that was when he likely was an afterthought on opposition scouting reports. There were bigger fish to fry. Now, he is at the top of the list of problems offenses will have to confront.

“When that focus is all on you, it builds up the excitement for you in a game,” Day said. “I wouldn’t call it pressure, I think of it as a challenge. ‘Oh, you think you can double-team me? OK, let’s see if you can do it.’

“It’s a good feeling to be that ‘single out’ guy: ‘Oh, we’re going to have to block (No.) 91 (Day).’”

“I don’t know how much teams (will game plan for Day),” said Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston. “If they’re smart they will. We’ll have to make sure we’re putting him in situations where he can take advantage of an opportunity.”

When Brian VanGorder took over as the Irish defensive coordinator, he brought with him a license for Day to run. The new-look Notre Dame defense will be fast, aggressive, and bent on disturbing the quarterback.

Somehow, somewhere, Day will have to be in a position to cause the damage.

“I don’t know if there’s a better guy (on the defensive line) in the country than Sheldon Day,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “We think he’s as good as there is.

“We have plans to move him around to utilize his pass-rush ability. We don’t have a speed guy, per se. But he can benefit from some of our schemes to be an inside guy that can get some pressure. We feel he’s athletic enough that we can do a number of things with him.

“I don’t think you’ll see him in our third-down package in one position. We’ll certainly move him around.”

“I like moving around,” Day said. “They try to hide me or get me on the best matchup. Moving around, you get to learn the other positions, get a feel for the game, and use your attributes to the best of your ability.”

“Sheldon’s a very initially-quick player that plays with great leverage,” Elston said. “In a 3-4 system, the way we were playing it (last season), it kind of negated (his assets).”

There’s more to Day than just his athletic skills. Two years alongside some great athletes and quality leaders, he feels more comfortable stepping into a role of visibility.

“(Day’s) vocal to the point where he’ll hold others accountable,” Kelly said. “That’s great leadership to me. He’s demonstrated that. He’s led his group (on the defensive line) and he’s led the defense.”

“I used to be the guy who sits back and observes so many things,” Day said. “Now I’m up front communicating.

“As you observe, you learn when you can say things and when you can’t. If somebody does something wrong and you’re a freshman, you really can’t say anything because you could make the same mistake.

“You have to wait for your time to know when things are right.”

Guys like Tuitt, Lewis-Moore, and Nix had a significant influence.

“(I learned) how they played the game,” Day said. “They accepted everything for how it was. When to talk. When not to talk. There are so many things I took from those guys that made me into the player I am today.”

The fellow he is today is a veteran who can help a lot of young defensive linemen find their way.

“You’ve got some freshmen who are just trying to survive right now,” Elston said. “They’re learning what they have to do in this defense. Sheldon can conceptually draw up what that defense is about.

“He can help direct traffic when you have to play some young guys. He’s incredibly valuable.”

Along with the aggressive pattern on the defensive line comes added responsibilities.

“There’s a tremendous amount on their plate,” Elston said. “It’s exciting. There are more opportunities to make big plays. The guys are excited about that. It’s a more aggressive style. The guys can get off the edge and run off the football. But, it’s a lot more technical.

“It definitely plays to Sheldon Day’s strengths.”

It finally gives Day a chance to stand on his own two feet, without being in anyone’s shadow.

Bet the ranch plenty of opponents will notice.

Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day could be the target of more double teams this season. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)