From almost the moment Sheldon Day got to campus, the Notre Dame coaching staff expected big things out of him. For the first two seasons of his career, that meant playing defensive end in the Irish’s 3-4 attack, the lone outlier among defensive linemen custom-fit for Bob Diaco’s system. Day held his own, first as a complementary piece to the elite 2012 defense before moving into the starting lineup, but spending most of the 2013 season battling a high-ankle sprain.
But with Diaco gone and Day taking his talents to the interior of the defensive line, we’ll get a look at the player Brian Kelly continually calls his most disruptive defensive lineman. He’ll need to be that. Because Day will now be the leading man on a defensive line without Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix.
Let’s take a closer look at the junior from Indianapolis.
6’2″, 290 lbs.
Junior, No. 91
Day’s recruitment wasn’t as celebrated as it should have been, likely the after-effects of signing blue-chippers like Aaron Lynch and Stephon Tuitt. But any time Notre Dame wins a battle over schools like LSU and Michigan, Irish fans should be happy.
Day was a four-star recruit, on various top 100 lists, and finished first or second for the Indiana state player of the year depending on the publication. And after enrolling early for spring practice, Kelly hinted at the impact they expected from Day after initial reports from the strength staff.
“The thing we love about him is not only his personality and who he is, but incredible motor, a great work ethic, he is already here and we have gotten comments back from our strength and conditioning staff and Coach Longo about his work volume and his work ethic and enthusiasm for what he is doing,” Kelly said on Signing Day. “He’s a dynamic player, one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and he will immediately, like all of our freshmen, be expected to come in and complete right away.”
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.
There have been flashes of Day at his best. Take the Temple game, where he was the Irish’s most difficult to stop defensive lineman. And after his ankle healed, Day played great football against Pitt, out-playing All-World defensive tackle Aaron Donald, as well as against BYU and Rutgers. But he hasn’t been statistically dominant. But if we are to believe what we hear from Brian Kelly and defensive line coach Mike Elston, Day’s best football isn’t too far away.
Shifting Day inside should help let him play with excellent leverage, allowing him to attack a single gap and wreak havoc up field as opposed to setting the edge of the Irish defensive line. At 290-pounds, he’s got plenty of size for a defensive tackle, and he’ll be less of a run-plugger than Jarron Jones.
Again, there’s every reason to believe that Day is along the lines of Ian Williams and Trevor Laws, high-level performers for the Irish that were selected high in the NFL Draft. But after seeing last season short-circuited by injury, it’s only potential right now. But Day is far and away the Irish’s best defensive lineman, and Kelly has spent three years talking about his ability.
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.
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