Notre Dame: Sheldon Day on a mission to prove doubters wrong

Notre Dame: Sheldon Day on a mission to prove doubters wrong
August 6, 2014, 11:30 am
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CULVER, Ind. — Sheldon Day sees all the questions.

Can Notre Dame's defensive line be any good without Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt? How will a group of largely young, inexperienced players hold up against some of college football's best offenses? Will the defensive line be a weak link bad enough to ruin Notre Dame's chances of contending for a spot in the College Football Playoff?

Those questions have helped fuel Day to establish himself as a leader on Notre Dame's defensive line, a unit he thinks will prove all those doubters wrong.

"I took it upon myself that I’ve never been that guy where I’m part of the weak link," Day said. "I refuse to be a part of that."

[MORE: Better offensive line depth puts Notre Dame in good shape]

With Nix and Tuitt off to the NFL, Day saw the need to step up as the go-to guy on Notre Dame's defensive line. He started eating better to cut some fat and get leaner and stronger — "you know how I’m the honey bun guy, so it was tough," Day said — so he could better suit Brian VanGorder's aggressive 4-3 defense.

And in the spring, Day texted all of his defensive line mates with a pointed message.

"I just kind of reached out to them and said, ‘Do you guys want to be viewed like this?'" Day said. "If not, then we need to this, this, this and this."

Day had to wait for his leadership moment, though. Few could rally the troops better than Kapron Lewis-Moore in 2012, while Nix and Tuitt — when healthy — made plenty of big plays in the spotlight.

As a freshman and sophomore, Day learned a lot from those guys. But they were stars, the kind of go-to guys who could change a game on their own.

Coach Brian Kelly said the vacuum left by the departures of Nix and Tuitt actually has fostered a greater cohesiveness with the Irish defensive line, with Day pushing the group forward.

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"Our defensive line is a 180 in terms of where they are this year compared to last year, as how they work as a group," Kelly said. "They have been outstanding and that's led by Sheldon Day."

The leadership and motivation Day provides can only go so far, though, if the talent isn't there. Jarron Jones flashed potential a year ago but didn't play much until November, while Romeo Okwara and Ishaq Williams move down from linebacker and will hold starting roles for the first time in their respective careers. Without veteran swingman Tony Springmann, there's not a whole lot of experienced depth behind the starters in this unit.

That's where the questions have come from. Day said he doesn't want his group to be viewed as having to be carried by a linebacking corps that includes a budding star in Jaylon Smith, or a secondary that's loaded with experience and talent.

If Day accomplishes his mission, by the end of the season he'll have led the push to change the perception about Notre Dame's defensive line.

"I feel like it's a chip on our shoulder," Day said. "We want the target on our backs."