Sheldon Day embracing leadership role for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — A captain is defined by more than a ‘C’ on your chest.

Last year, Sheldon Day had the title, but not necessarily the command. The 6-foot-2, 285-pound defensive tackle was unsure of how best to lead, cautious of turning heads or stepping on anyone’s toes. His production and experience were both evident, as the Indianapolis native started 11 games in his junior season and racked up 40 tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss.

He was a presence on the line of scrimmage, but less so in the locker room.

“It was more trying to know my role,” Day said last week. “I didn’t want to overstep my boundaries and break friendships up and things like that. It was all about how somebody else felt.

“Now I’m in a role where I have to get things going. I care about your feelings, but it’s more about, ‘I have to tell you what I have to tell you.’”

Day’s transformation has been apparent, not just to the defensive linemen, but also up the ranks.

“Last year at times he was a hesitant leader in a sense that he knew he had a captain role but he wasn't sure how to fill it at times,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “This year there is no mistake about how he's leading. That is his room. He holds everybody accountable in that room.”

And for Day, that shift represents tremendous growth, a four-year leap from a kid who laughed more than he spoke to the unquestioned face — and voice — of his position.

“When I first came in here it was like, ‘Oh, that’s just Sheldon. He’s just a laughing guy that likes to have fun, won’t say anything, just kind of observe all the time,’” Day said. “But now I’d say my voice is a forceful impact in the locker room.”

This fall, it has to be. Surrounded by a youthful defensive line, highlighted by freshman Jerry Tillery and sophomore Daniel Cage at nose tackle, Day provides both an example to follow and, if need be, a stern word of motivation.

Keith Gilmore may be the defensive line coach, but Day is the coach in uniform.

“I’ve pointed out to Sheldon that that’s his role, being a four-year player here and a returning starter,” Gilmore said. “He can help those guys just as much as I can in a lot of ways, because guys will receive the peer coaching and listen to the things he’s saying, because he’s out there doing it and being successful. His role has been really big and I’m really grateful that he’s been able to do that.”

Added Gilmore: “At this point, without a doubt, he is the leader of our unit. He has embraced it. I think he realizes that it’s a thing that’s going to help him be a better player and help us be a better group. I keep telling him, ‘If the group is not good, it’s not going to help you be as good as you can be. So to have some of the successes and the things you want for yourself, you have to bring other guys along.’”

The team’s success, in many ways, will hinge on the consistent production of Day’s defensive line, which finished 74th in the country in rushing defense (171.2 yards per game) and 70th in sacks (26) in 2014. Besides earning his degree, Day chose to return for his senior season with a national championship in mind.

And though Day is stronger, faster and more intelligent than ever, he can’t reach that plateau without lifting up those around him.

Now, he’s focused on being a captain, both in title and execution.

“It definitely feels like everything is falling into place for me, especially with being a leader of the D-line and a leader of this team,” Day said. “It feels like everything is working in my favor. You could definitely call it a crescendo moment.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com | 574-235-6428 | Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day (91) celebrates a stop during Notre Dame's Blue-Gold spring football game on Saturday, April 18, 2015, at the LaBar Practice Complex on the campus of the University of Notre Dame in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN