Stay or go? Stephon Tuitt has a big decision to make

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As Notre Dame prepares for the Pinstripe Bowl, defensive end Stephon Tuitt is likely preparing to make his own big decision. The junior defensive end is eligible to enter the NFL Draft, and depending on what you hear from various experts in the media, Tuitt will likely be a first round pick whenever he decides to turn professional.

Of course, we’ve seen just how much influence the media has had in the 32 draft rooms. Guys like Matt Barkley and Manti Te’o have seen their “stock drop,” while guys like Bruce Irvin have come from nowhere to go in the first round. It’s all part of the NFL’s silly season, where analysts spend months debating while NFL teams evaluate college football’s talent pool.

Earlier this week, Brian Kelly talked about the decision Tuitt faces, and where the junior is in that process.

“All we’ve done is put in his paperwork to get an evaluation from the NFL,” Kelly said. “I’ve had some preliminary conversations about his academic work.  He still has some work to do academically.  We haven’t really delved into the depth of that yet.”

That exploration will likely come in the days following the Irish’s bowl game, a match-up that could feature a lot of Tuitt. After a slow start to the season, one Kelly attributed to an offseason hernia surgery that hindered Tuitt during the spring and summer, Tuitt played strong football during the season’s second half and has been the dominant, jumbo-sized, 3-4 defensive end that many expected.

Playing a ton of snaps for a 320-pound defensive lineman, Tuitt put together an impressive regular season stat-line of 45 tackles, 7.5 TFLs, and 6 sacks. While he didn’t match the explosive behind the line of scrimmage numbers he put up last season, he played well with a spotlight on him that just didn’t exist last season. (Take a look at Jadeveon Clowney’s numbers if you’re looking for a comparison.)

Tuitt won’t be the pass rusher that Clowney will be, an explosive defensive end that still projects to be among the top three picks in the draft. But six-foot-six, 320-pound defensive ends don’t grow on trees, and Tuitt’s size, skill-set and athleticism make him one of the elite defensive talents available to NFL teams, especially with his ability to play in both three and four down sets.

The South Bend Tribune’s Eric Hansen talked with DraftCountdown.com’s Scott Wright, who is already well into his research for a draft that’s still 147 days away. He talked about the somewhat tricky situation Tuitt finds himself in, as teams look at the edge players behind Clowney.

“Tuitt’s in kind of a tricky situation. Clowney is projected to be the first defensive end taken, somewhere in the top three picks overall. Then there’s a gap. Who is the next defensive end who comes off the board?” Wright told Hansen.

“If Tuitt isn’t the favorite, he’s certainly in the conversation. And some of the other contenders for that spot — Stanford’s Trent Murphy and Clemson’s Vic Beasley — may end up playing outside linebacker. Tuitt is a true defensive end who can play in a 3-4 or a 4-3. Sure, he could go back for his senior season and be a top 5, 10 guy next year. But he may already be in a position to be in the top 10 this year, just based on need and who’s available.”

While “stay or go” might be the question that’s asked of Tuitt the most these next few weeks, Kelly has been consistent on his message to players who have been in similar situations.

“I personally think you come to Notre Dame, you want to get your degree,” Kelly said Sunday. “That wouldn’t just be for Stephon Tuitt, I think it would be for everybody.”

Kelly is well practiced at this point, guiding Kyle Rudolph, Michael Floyd, Harrison Smith, Manti Te’o and Tyler Eifert through the decision. It hasn’t all been advice that brings the players back to South Bend either, with Rudolph, Eifert and Louis Nix having an unused year of eligibility when they went to the next level.

Still, the remaining constant in all of this was a college degree. That seemed immensely important to the families of Irish players saddled with a wonderful problem to have, and was a priority for Tuitt and his mother, Gwinnett County sheriff’s deputy Tamara Bartlett.

Bartlett’s stance on Tuitt’s professional career has been interesting to track. Early in his sophomore season, she was adamant on her son earning a degree. Late this summer, when preseason hype was at its highest, multiple outlets reported that she was doing her due diligence on agents. After Tuitt told The Observer that he planned on returning to school, his mother did her best to control the chaos, telling the Chicago Tribune, “Stephon has not decided what he is going to do. What he meant to say was that school is the focal point and he will get his degree from ND.”

Expect Brian Kelly and his defensive staff to re-recruit Tuitt all over again. Following a playbook that allowed Michael Floyd to get his degree and still be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, Kelly will lay out for Tuitt what the staff can help him improve, and how that can push the hulking defensive end higher in the draft, while also giving him the certainty that a Notre Dame degree provides. 

If you were to follow the bread crumbs, there is optimism inside the Gug that Tuitt will return for his senior season. He stated as much in mid-October, though tried his best to put the toothpaste back in the tube after the news broke. Irish Illustrated also reported last week that any correspondence with potential agents between Tuitt’s family or intermediaries has gone cold, probably the most telling sign.

There’s nothing wrong with Tuitt saying goodbye to Notre Dame now, moving to the NFL and being able to provide for his family immediately. He can always return to South Bend and pick up his degree later, like Jimmy Clausen did a few years ago.

But with Everett Golson already looking like a five-star recruit, Kelly has the opportunity to welcome back his star defensive end, a six-star prospect if there ever was one.