Notre Dame junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt is going to attract a lot of attention this season. It goes with the territory when being named a preseason first-team All-America selection by just about everyone who compiles such honors.
But Tuitt is also going to attract a lot of attention – in the wrong way - when he goes to battle in front of 115,000-plus fans and nearly 9 million viewers on national television and records the same number of tackles as Pee Wee Herman did in the Fighting Irish loss at Michigan last Saturday.
The spotlight got a bit brighter earlier this week when fourth-year Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly effusively praised two-thirds of the Irish defensive front.
Guess which player was left out of the adulation shower?
That's right, Tuitt.
“Louis Nix was a beast,” Kelly said of his nose guard against the Wolverines. “They couldn't block him.”
And what about Tuitt?
“I thought physically, we're talking about play after play, fit after fit, (defensive end) Sheldon Day played outstanding,” Kelly continued.
“I would point to those two,” Kelly said.
A year after bursting onto the national scene with 47 tackles and the second most sacks in a season (12) in Notre Dame history, Tuitt statistically has just burst this season thus far.
As a sophomore, he averaged nearly four tackles and a sack every game. This season he's totaled three tackles and one sack through two games, including none of either last week in the Big House.
"Stephon played well,” Kelly said in his evaluation. “He missed a couple of opportunities. You know, he continues to play more and more for us.”
Tuitt did undergo hernia surgery during the offseason and was unable to do a lot of the strength and conditioning work that his teammates have been doing for months. Perhaps that has played a role in his less than expected start numberswise.
Against Purdue (8 p.m. Saturday, ABC), Kelly expects to see continued progress out of Tuitt, but in the meantime, Nix and Day have played “outstanding” and Kelly wants to expand his depth along the defensive front – especially after losing sophomore Tony Springmann (knee injury in training camp) and recruit Eddie Vanderdoes (transferred to UCLA) prior to this season.
“We've got to get more guys into the game,” Kelly said. “We're probably going to see (freshman) Jarron Jones a little bit more. We've got to see (freshman) Isaac Rochell a little bit more to keep (the starters) fresh.”
Smith learning on the job
Former Bishop Luers High School standout Jaylon Smith is expected to make his third career start in as many games on Saturday and so far Kelly has not regretted throwing the true freshman into the mix right off of the bat.
“The benefits of playing (Smith) are that you get a lot of experience early on,” Kelly said, “and especially with our schedule. We are not playing easy squads. We are playing good football teams early on and he's getting an opportunity to learn a lot.”
Smith has totaled six tackles in splitting time with sophomore Ben Councell.
“You're going to have to live with some mistakes that are made, but I tell you what, he's made some really good plays for us as well,” Kelly said. “Jaylon's an athletic kid that loves to play and he plays hard.
“Occasionally, you are going to be put in some compromising positions. He's a young man that makes up for some of those mistakes with the way he plays.”