Path to the Draft: Sheldon Day

AP
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The final part of a post-draft series. See earlier work on Ronnie StanleyWill FullerJaylon SmithNick MartinKeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise.

 

SHELDON DAY
No. 103 overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars

It didn’t take long for Notre Dame’s coaching staff to know they found a good one with Sheldon Day. From the moment Day stepped foot onto campus as an early-enrollee freshman, the staff’s eyes were open wide as they marveled at the complete package they landed in the Indianapolis native.

“The thing we love about him is not only his personality and who he is, but incredible motor, and a great work ethic,” head coach Brian Kelly said in his Signing Day press conference. “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. He’s a dynamic player, one of the best defensive linemen in the country, and he will immediately.”

Kelly sounded exactly like a coach who knew what he had. And it was true—Day found his way to being a key contributor on one of the best defenses in Notre Dame history, playing in all 13 games, making 23 tackles and notching two sacks playing behind Kapron Lewis-Moore.

But the next two seasons weren’t as kind to Day. Not because he wasn’t more productive, but because he couldn’t stay healthy. He started 11 games in each of the next two years, but battled to be on the field in even those games. While his skills and ability to disrupt an offensive line were clearly evident, his ability to stay on the field and work his way through the physical demands of the position weren’t.

Still, Day had put himself in a position to decide if he wanted to stay for his senior year or gamble on the NFL after just three seasons. And while draft analysts saw limited value in an undersized defensive tackle who couldn’t stay on the field, it didn’t take long for Kelly, athletic director Jack Swarbrick and strength coach Paul Longo to understand that Day was one of the key “six-star recruits” that the program needed to have in 2015.

A summit with Day and his mother took place. An analysis of Day’s skill-set and production accompanied a plan for Day to put together not just a monster final season in South Bend, but to make sure NFL teams saw what they saw in the undersized defensive tackle.

It worked.

“After talking with my family, friends and coaches at Notre Dame, I’ve decided to return for my senior year with the Irish,” Day announced in a written statement in January of 2015. “While the process leading up to this decision was difficult, ultimately my decision to return was easy. I love this school, my teammates and this coaching staff. I just felt it was in my best interest to play another year for Notre Dame.

“I believe we’ve got an opportunity to have a special season in 2015 and I wanted to be a part of that success. I was blessed to play in the national championship game as a freshman in 2012, and I want to do everything in my power to reach that stage again with my guys.”

Day’s ultimate goal of playing for a championship died when Stanford kicked a last-second field goal in the regular season finale. But there might not have been a player in the draft who did more for his stock than Day did his senior season.

A dominant force in the trenches, Day’s productivity was nearly unmatched in the country. PFF College charted plays of every game played last season, and Day graded out as the nation’s best defensive tackle. Just as important, he played in every game—gutting out a Fiesta Bowl week foot injury that had many worried he had suffered a major injury. It didn’t matter, Day gutted out 41 snaps on a bum wheel and was as productive as ever.

While he slid into the fourth round—the product of one of the deepest classes of defensive linemen in recent memory—Day’s selection at pick No. 103 couldn’t have happened without mutual buy in from the player and a coaching staff that had Mike Elston build Day’s technique from the start and Keith Gilmore finish it with new 4-3 techniques. Playing both three and four-man fronts was the perfect experience for Day, who’ll now have the chance to display his versatility in a system that’s know for just that.

A two-time captain and the lynchpin for Notre Dame’s reemergence as a recruiting force in Indianapolis, Day’s impact on the field was impressive, but his role off of it was profound. Whether it was mentoring Jerry Tillery (as seen so often on Showtime) or learning to lead from the front, Day’s development and success won’t soon be forgotten in South Bend.

Notre Dame may have had six players drafted ahead of Day. But none were more important to the program.