Stanford v Notre Dame

Ten players, ten reasons: Stephon Tuitt

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The ninth in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta, Danny Spond, TJ Jones, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick, Kapron Lewis-Moore,  Tommy Rees and Mike Golic Jr.

With Notre Dame fans eager for revenge against Michigan after three straight heart breaking losses, they looked to Stephon Tuitt for help. The six-foot-six, 306-pound sophomore defensive end had exploded on the scene early in 2012, racking up stats at an alarming rate.

His touchdown against Navy looked like something out of a video game, a giant man outrunning players that usually sprint away from defensive linemen. The emerging defender was a terrifying presence on the field for opposing offenses, and Irish fans took to pop culture and superhero movies for a nickname, comparing Tuitt and his intimidating, multi-barred facemask to the antagonist Bain, the menacing hulk that calmly terrorized Gotham City in The Dark Knight Rises.

Tuitt gave the Notre Dame record books a scare this season, nearly toppling Justin Tuck’s single-season sack record for the Irish. And as the one of the key anchors to the stingiest defense in the country, the Georgia native erased any worry about losing classmate Aaron Lynch, who overshadowed Tuitt last season when Tuitt battled a variety of maladies. Clear of mono, past a disappointing benching for sleeping through a morning class, Tuitt took the challenge of the 2012 season as a goal to embrace, and his commitment to dominating his opponents was a key factor in the Irish defense’s leap from good to great.

As Tuitt turned in an All-American campaign, media members took notice of the country-strong giant from Georgia. And thanks to some great reporting, we’ve learned more about a Tuitt, a thoughtful young man whose journey to football is a tremendous story.

Andy Staples of SI.com chronicled Tuitt’s decision to start playing football, and the long, fearful walk he took to join a team he felt compelled to play on. Against his mother’s wishes, and with no other mode of transportation available, Tuitt walked nearly a dozen miles to join his high school football team. After learning the game and growing into his gigantic frame, Tuitt helped turn his team’s fortunes around — a squad that went 0-20 in his sophomore and junior year went 11-2 during his senior season, with Tuitt as its star and leader.

For a football player so large and powerful, there is always a thoughtfulness that comes across when you hear Tuitt speak. It likely comes from the commanding presence of his mother in his life, sheriff’s deputy Tamara Bartlett. Bartlett guided her son’s college search, more focused on graduation rates and a school’s reputation than football program or defensive scheme.

Yet that thoughtfulness might also come from the pains of his journey to football stardom. As Brian Hamilton of the Chicago Tribune revealed, Tuitt played this season grieving the loss of a father he never knew.

“I just wanted to meet him, and use this attention to grab out there to see him,” Tuitt told Hamilton. “But it didn’t work out the way I thought it would. I thought I was so close. Yet I’m so far, because he’s gone already.

“It has been hard. It had a lot of affect on me in different areas and I still feel it to this day. It’s a lot of hurt. A lot of hurt.”

Tuitt keeps most of that hurt inside, beneath an exterior that reveals a polite and happy young man. In that way, maybe he is similar to one of those larger than life movie characters. A gentle soul, driven by life’s winding journey. But once he puts on that golden shining helmet, and hides behind his menacing face mask, Tuitt unleashes a fury that Irish fans haven’t seen along the defensive line in years.

He’ll have one last chance to put on his cape tonight.

Drue Tranquill named first-team Academic All-American

Drue Tranquill
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Drue Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American. The junior safety, who returned from his second major knee injury during his three-year career, earned the honors after posting a 3.74 GPA in mechanical engineering.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s first academic All-American since Corey Robinson earned the honor after the 2014 season. He finished second on the team in tackles with 79 and lead the team in solo stops with 52. He also had two TFLs and an interception.

Tranquill is Notre Dame’s 60th Academic All-American, the third-most of any school behind Nebraska and Penn State. He’s active in the university community, serving as a mentor for the Core Leadership Team for Lifeworks Ministry, and is a member of Notre Dame Christian Athletes. He is a also member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) and Rosenthal Leadership Academy.

 

Postseason Mailbag: Now Open

SAN ANTONIO, TX - NOVEMBER 12: Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly leads his team onto the field before the start of their game against Army in a NCAA college football game at the Alamodome on November 12, 2016 in San Antonio, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images)
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It’s been too long. Let’s talk about the season, the decisions ahead and where Notre Dame stands after its nightmare of a 2016 season.

Drop your questions on Twitter @KeithArnold or in the comments below.

 

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If you’re interested in hearing my recap on the USC game and where Notre Dame’s goes now that the season is over, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, with Newsweek’s John Walters. 

 

Report: Zaire set to depart with graduate transfer

Malik Zaire
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The wheels are in motion for Malik Zaire‘s exit from Notre Dame. What felt like an inevitability after Zaire lost out to DeShone Kizer after the Texas game is now a reality, as the Ohio native is expected to receive his release tomorrow, according to a report from Pete Sampson at Irish Illustrated.

Sampson identified four programs as potential landing spots for Zaire: Florida, Pitt, Michigan State and Wisconsin, Power Five programs that all had better seasons (minus the Spartans) than Notre Dame. All have uncertainty atop their quarterback depth chart, though none look like guaranteed jobs.

With Notre Dame out of a bowl, Zaire can get a jump start on looking around, capable of taking visits and finding a home after the semester. That would let him join a program in time for spring drills, where he’d compete and be able to play out his final year of eligibility.

When Zaire leaves he’ll join a line of recent quarterbacks to finish their eligibility elsewhere. Dayne Crist, Andrew Hendrix, Gunner Kiel and Everett Golson all either played or were recruited by Brian Kelly and finished their careers elsewhere. That could leave a scenario—one many predict—where the top-two on Notre Dame’s depth chart depart, Kizer to the NFL and Zaire elsewhere, turning the keys over to Brandon Wimbush who redshirted this season.

Tillery apologizes for actions during USC game

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Sophomore Jerry Tillery issued an apology for two controversial incidents against USC. Notre Dame’s defensive tackle was flagged for an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty after a referee caught him stepping on Zach Banner‘s ankle. Cameras also spotted him intentionally hitting Aca’Cedric Ware‘s head after the Trojan running back was injured after a collision with Nicco Fertitta.

Tillery wrote on Twitter:

“I want to take full responsibility for my actions on Saturday. I am truly sorry. I acted in a way that was out of character for me. What I displayed in those two instances were completely unbecoming and not indicative of the kind of player or person I am. My actions in those two instances do not represent what my family or Notre Dame has molded me to be. I want to especially apologize to Aca’Cedric, Zach, their families and anyone else affected by what I did. I assure you I will learn and grow from this moment and become a better man because of it.”

While the backlash on social media has been harsh, USC head coach Clay Helton downplayed it.

“It was a poor decision by a young person. I know it’s not Notre Dame football and I know that’s not Brian Kelly,” Helton said. “He’s been a class act the whole way and I know he’ll address it with his player and handle it in a way that he sees fit. I have always found Brian to be a man of class and integrity.”

Ware himself responded via Twitter, doing his best to put the incident to rest.

Kelly stated after the game that he’d review the incidents, both plays Kelly didn’t see happen live. With the season over, Tillery’s discipline will be handled internally.