One of the most important pieces of the offseason came when Sheldon Day decided to return to South Bend for his senior season. Day made the choice after a well-chronicled re-recruitment, with Notre Dame’s coaching staff and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laying out for Day the benefits of returning, including a school-supplied insurance policy.
From the outside, the benefits are obvious. For the Irish, they retain a team captain and their most versatile defensive lineman. For Day, he gets a chance to prove he can stay on the field and produce at the level expected of him—something the NFL still questions.
Notre Dame believes Day has the athleticism and ability to draw Aaron Donald comparisons—a lofty standard that Day hasn’t come close to reaching in his three seasons in South Bend. But with a year left and another strong offseason, Day will get a chance to elevate his draft status and enter the NFL prepared to succeed.
Let’s take a closer look at one of the Irish’s most experienced players.
6’2″, 285 lbs.
Senior, No. 91, DL
Notre Dame won out on Day over schools like LSU and Michigan, something that doesn’t happen all that often when it comes to defensive linemen. He was a four-star recruit, a Top-100 player by various recruiting rankings, and early enrolled.
Day also renewed Notre Dame’s interest in Indianapolis public school athletes, something this Irish staff deserves credit for in reopening that pipeline. While Day lacked prototype size or length a la an Aaron Lynch or Stephon Tuitt, he walked onto campus and contributed to one of Notre Dame’s best defenses in school history immediately.
Freshman Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, making 23 tackles, two sacks and 3.5 TFLs. Collected his sacks against Michigan and Michigan State, both schools that offered Day. Had five tackles against Wake Forest.
Sophomore Season (2013): Played in 11 games, starting just eight after beginning in the opening day starting lineup. Made 33 tackles, with 21 of them being solo stops and 5.5 TFLs (0.5 of those were sacks). Had three TFLs against Pitt and seven tackles against BYU, closing the season on a high note after suffering an ankle sprain early against Purdue.
Junior Season (2014): Started 11 games before a knee injury limited him for the regular season’s final two games. Made 40 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, one sack and nine QB hurries. Named Notre Dame’s Moose Krause Lineman of the Year.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
This projection went up in smoke when the bodies started dropping like flies, starting with the preseason retirement of Tony Springmann.
I expect a dominant season from Day, who might be one of the Irish’s best five players. Without fully understanding how Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder plan to attack opponents, projecting stats could be tough. But after two-gapping and holding the line of attack, expect Day to use his elite block destruction skills and quickness to put up stats in a defense that’ll find ways to pressure quarterbacks.
From a leadership perspective, Day’s experience necessitates him stepping to the forefront on a defensive line that’s filled with mostly potential and hypothetical fits. And while the experience behind he and Jones at defensive tackle is very dicey (only Tony Springmann, coming off a major knee injury, has any), he’ll be asked to play three downs and help rush the passer.
Still, I tend to think Day will be the best player on a surprising defensive line. A unit that will find a way to be more productive than the group some thought could be the best starting group in school history.
You’ve got to think that it’s only a matter of time before Day breaks out. He’s a player who consistently has been talked up by this coaching staff—a group that isn’t known for pom poms when the player isn’t deserving.
But it’s Day’s senior season. For all his ability and explosiveness he’s coming off a junior season with just one sack. So while 7.5 tackles-for-loss and nine quarterback hurries are nice, they’re hardly elite numbers that go along with a national awards watchlist player.
But lined up next to Jarron Jones, Day will have his chances. And with some leaky offensive lines on the Irish schedule, it’s time for the Irish captain to put down some game tape that shows what the Irish staff has been seeing in practice.
For two seasons, Day played in a system that wasn’t great for an undersized defensive end asked to hold the point of attack. Last year, Day shifted inside to a position that better suited him physically, but he was a step slow on a dozen plays that likely would change the way we view him as a player.
When Notre Dame’s staff visited with Day before he made his decision to return, they talked about the little things that Day would need to do to be viewed as a top-level NFL prospect. They included measureables—explosive training numbers that Day will likely hit when he goes to Indianapolis for the NFL scouting combine. But they also likely included stats and big plays that come with that ability, something Day’s still working to achieve.
Ultimately, I’m having a hard time saying with certainty that Day’s breakout is inevitable. Health is a tricky thing and Day’s struggled to stay on two feet. But if Notre Dame’s defensive line surrounding Day plays up to their ability, there’s no reason to think Day can’t turn in a double-digit TFL season, and do a better job of getting after the quarterback. If he does, the Irish defense will be the group we saw in the first half of last season, not the MASH unit filled with leak from last November.
THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS