The goal for Notre Dame is to reach college football's four-team playoff a year from now. Accomplishing that goal became a lot tougher Sunday night, with defensive end Stephon Tuitt deciding to forgo his senior season at Notre Dame and enter the NFL Draft.
The decision makes plenty of sense for Tuitt, who's projected by most early mock drafts as a first-round pick. He can still return to Notre Dame and earn his degree, fulfilling a promise made to his family when he committed to the Irish. It's a win-win for Tuitt, who will earn a hefty paycheck after three years in South Bend -- the last of which featured a nagging back injury.
But Tuitt's win is Notre Dame's loss, as the Irish will now be without their two best defensive players from 2013 this coming fall. No Tuitt and no Louis Nix means the Irish will enter next season with two gaping holes on its defense -- and it's also losing linebackers Prince Shembo, Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox as well as cornerback Bennett Jackson.
Tuitt, who notched 21 1/2 sacks in his three-year career at Notre Dame, would've been a massive difference-maker. His ability to overpower offensive linemen made him an elite pass rusher and run stopper, and when healthy was one of the best defensive linemen at the collegiate level.
[MORE: Stephon Tuitt to enter NFL Draft]
"Losing (Nix and Tuitt), it's going to be a lot, but our coaches always tell us there's no indispensable man," defensive tackle Jarron Jones said, still speaking in hypothetical terms last month. "… We'll find somebody, we got the coaches that will train us the right way to get us to the level to replace those guys. It's just a team effort. Those guys were amazing players, but next year -- there's going to be somebody to replace them. We can't just sit there and think about last year."
Notre Dame will return Jones on its defensive line, as well as defensive ends Sheldon Day and Isaac Rochell. Swingman Tony Springmann should be back from a torn ACL suffered in August, too.
The Irish also have three true defensive lineman verbally committed to their 2014 recruiting class: Four-star end Matt Dickerson, three-star end Andrew Trumbetti and four-star defensive tackle Jay Hayes. Three-star commits Grant Blankenship, Jonathan Bonner and Jhonathon Williams could all wind up at either defensive end or 'cat' outside linebacker as well.
[RELATED: Irish feel championship foundation is in place]
Jones, Rochell and Springmann all may turn out to be better-than-serviceable, but a lot of weight will be placed on their collective shoulders. Day will be counted on to anchor the line as its most experience member, meaning he'll have to make a step forward after building a solid foundation over the last two years. It's a unit that has promise, but lacks guaranteed impact.
Facing a very difficult schedule -- away games at Florida State, Arizona State and USC and home games against Michigan and Stanford headline the 2014 slate -- Notre Dame will need all hands on deck to improve off its nine-win 2013 record. Perhaps its defensive line and front seven turn out to be good enough.
Notre Dame, to be sure, won't do much pondering in the fall on what would've been had Tuitt stuck around. But if the Irish start slipping again, it'll be a difficult notion to avoid.