Notre Dame DL Sheldon Day confident of return with status still in question

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

When Sheldon Day spoke with media members Friday following the Notre Dame football awards show, the junior defensive tackle couldn’t have been more confident about being able to play in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl against LSU.

The message from head coach Brian Kelly came with a little more caution on Monday. If Day’s knee injury — an MCL sprain suffered against Northwestern — isn’t fully healed in time for the game, Kelly doesn’t want to put Day in harm’s way.

But keeping Day sidelined for the game could be the most painful outcome for the leader of the defensive line. Missing the last two games of the season were torture for Day.

“You feel helpless,” Day said. “You can't do anything. You're talking to your guys but you can't really go out there and make a play to calm everybody down.”

Getting back onto the practice field last week allowed Day to regain the hope that he will be ready to go in Nashville. He continues to mark off personal checkpoints as the training staff evaluates him. His next goal?

“Just (regaining) my confidence to play at a high level and to play fast and physical on every single play,” Day said.

Notre Dame’s defensive front, with or without Day, will need that confidence and physicality against a tough LSU running game. The Tigers will try to wear down a Notre Dame defense that has proved thin as the season progressed.

"Specifically with the D-line, it's all about our punch and how physical we play up front,” Day said. “We're definitely starting to push to get back the motor, get back going and get everything back on track."

That means a return to early-season efforts that produced a shutout against Michigan and held Stanford to 47 rushing yards. Alongside Day, defensive tackle Jarron Jones and defensive ends Isaac Rochell and Andrew Trumbetti were thrust into starting roles and showed flashes of dominance.

"We ascended as a group,” Day said. “When we play physical, we can play with pretty much everybody in the country. The things that we fell short on was making plays in big-time situations or stopping the run when we needed to. We kind of caved in sometimes."

The weaknesses were exposed for 1,533 yards of offense in the final three games. In each of those losses to Northwestern, Louisville and USC, the Irish allowed more than 200 rushing yards.

The return of Day could help re-energize the defensive line, especially with Jones out for the year with a foot injury. In 10 games, Day totaled 38 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and one sack. He is also tied with Rochell for the team lead in quarterback hurries with nine, despite playing two fewer games.

While Day was sidelined, he had to trade in that production for a teaching role.

“I was trying to grow their confidence. I was doing everything possible that I could,” Day said. “My eyes were their eyes and their eyes were my eyes. I tried to help them out on every single play. I was making sure they were communicating with each other and everybody was on the same page."

Day, a team captain, would prefer to be fulfilling that leadership role while on the field with his teammates. A return to practice last week means he’s that much closer.

“It's feeling good to get back out there with your teammates, running around, having fun and doing the things that you love,” Day said.

To complete the comeback, Day will have to lead the charge in trying to shut down the LSU running game. With an average of 219.5 yards per game this season, the Tigers rank No. 27 in the FBS in rushing offense.

"They're very physical up front,” Day said. “They do a lot of great things. We're just going to try our best to stop them."

He’s preparing like a player dead-set on suiting up for the final game of the season. It’s hard to bet against Day making it happen. Notre Dame could definitely use him.

"We go out with the mentality that we have to work hard and we have to play physical and practice physical to beat LSU,” Day said. “We're definitely getting our minds set right now." | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day celebrates a sack during the Notre Dame-Northwestern football game on Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN