DT Sheldon Day hopes lessons from 2012 propel Irish to title

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Sheldon Day has played for a national championship before, but now he wants more.

As a senior, Day is one of a dwindling number of players on the Notre Dame roster who were part of the magical 2012 season which ended in heartbreak. It’s a feeling he doesn’t want to forget.

“This year it’s more of a ‘Why not win it?’” Day said before Notre Dame opened preseason camp Friday. “We made it there, but that wasn’t good enough. So why not win it this year?”

Day may have only been a freshman, but he saw action in all 13 games during the 2012 season. From the moment he stepped onto campus, he realized that high expectations were customary at Notre Dame.

“That’s all we talked about. ‘Why not make it to the big dance? This is our year,’” Day said. “That’s the culture we had built in the locker room that year.”

Finding a way to fit into the foundation already in place was Day’s only responsibility. Three years later the weight of the program has been shifted to the shoulders of the 6-foot-2, 285-pound defensive tackle and his fellow seniors.

Helping carry the leadership load on defense are returning fifth-year seniors Joe Schmidt and Matthias Farley. Day knows the role he wants the experienced players to fill. They learned how to lead from captains Manti Te’o and Kapron Lewis-Moore in 2012.

“We saw what it took firsthand,” Day said. “So now everybody has that leadership role and we know what it takes and what we have to do to be good leaders.”

But Day wants to finish what his 2012 teammates couldn’t. So he’s parsed lessons from the 42-14 beatdown served by Alabama in the national championship game. What that Notre Dame team couldn’t do in its 13th game would have to be topped in games No. 13 and 14 for the current Irish squad.

“Always stay focused and pay attention to detail,” Day said. “Kind of leading up to the national championship game, I wouldn’t say we lost focus, but it was kind of like, ‘We made it here.’ I wouldn’t say we relaxed, but we didn’t have the same intensity that we had during the season.”

Confidence in the defense from Day is justified with a return to full strength following a season decimated by injuries. In year two of the Brian VanGorder experiment, Day already sees a difference in his defensive coordinator.

“You can definitely tell he’s more comfortable with us — giving us more plays or being more open-minded,” Day said.

The comfort seems to be mutual. Last year, Day admitted, confusion with the new defensive scheme caused problems.

“We had some guys where they would be in the playbook, but they wouldn’t fully understand the concept,” Day said. “Now we’re in year two. Everybody’s more comfortable with it.”

Day will play a crucial role on a defensive line expected to make improvements. With talent returning in the linebacker corps and in the secondary, the unit up front will be asked to cause havoc at the line of scrimmage.

Day, who notched 40 tackles, 7.5 tackles for a loss and one sack last season, could be asked to play multiple positions on the line to help create a pass rush. He embraces the opportunity to move around and said he has no preference on where he’s positioned.

“I definitely have fun with it. Just kind of showing my traits and doing things well.”

When Day missed time with a knee injury against Northwestern, Louisville and USC, the Notre Dame defense was pushed around for a total of 1,533 yards in only three games. The returning captain wants to help bring a tenacity back to the defensive line unit. Setting the tone up front could be what propels the Irish back into the national championship conversation.

“(We need to) play with a nasty attitude,” Day said. “Just get after every O-Lineman, no matter who they are, what they say. We’re definitely going to get after it.”

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Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day hopes his experience can propel the Irish to a title in 2015.