Notre Dame

Sheldon Day owns his role, Notre Dame legacy in senior year


Sheldon Day owns his role, Notre Dame legacy in senior year

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Playing the best football of his life and leading Notre Dame’s playoff push, senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day doesn’t deal with many what ifs.

Ten months ago, Day had a difficult choice to make: Stay in school, push for a national championship and improve his draft stock, or leave Notre Dame for the NFL and earn those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of dollars immediately.

“It was definitely foggy,” Day said of his mind while working through his decision.

Day announced his intention to remain at Notre Dame on Jan. 10 (he received a “stay in school” grade from the NFL Draft advisory board). A few days later, left tackle Ronnie Stanley followed suit, with Day’s decision to stick around a major influence.

[MORE: Notre Dame sees best players as best leaders in playoff push]

Day’s mother, Carol Boyd, advised her son to remain at Notre Dame, too. Getting a degree from Notre Dame’s prestigious Mendoza College of Business, in which Day is majoring in I.T. management, was important. Staying healthy for a full season was important. Gaining strength and a better understanding of defensive schemes was important. The potential for winning a championship was important.

All of those strides and accomplishments made by Day, one of the most important players on the No. 4 Irish, this year have given his mother plenty to yell about this fall.

“Even on the field warming up, he has an air about himself where, kicking and running, there’s just an air about him that he’s just transformed into this new — you can see it,” Boyd said. “His physique is different. The way he carries himself is so different.

“… I’m like, ‘that’s my baby!’”

Day leads Notre Dame’s defense with 11 1/2 tackles for a loss and 10 quarterback hurries, and is second on the team with three sacks. Coach Brian Kelly said the Indianapolis native’s play has been “off the charts” this year, with those stats a large reason behind the boom part of Notre Dame’s boom-or-bust defense.

“He's just a committed player. He wants his last year to be his best year,” Kelly said. “He wants to help this football team as a captain, and I think -- he came back for a reason. He came back so this would be his best year and help Notre Dame and help himself, and I think he's living up to all those things.”

At 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, Day — crediting strength coach Paul Longo — said he’s stronger than he’s ever been. Working with defensive line coach Keith Gilmore and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Day added, has put him in an excellent mental state. He’s one of the team’s most important leaders, too.

“He's a driving force in the locker room, in the meeting room, on the practice field and on the playing field,” linebacker and fellow captain Joe Schmidt said.

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Day’s embracing of his leadership role has been one of his biggest gains over the last year. As a junior captain in 2014, he still deferred to the upperclassmen on Notre Dame’s roster — his mom described him as more of an adviser than a leader.

This year, he’s completely different.

“He’s always been that old soul, but I think he’s just added a little bit more too it, that self-worth where, I’ve got this, I can do this, I’m capable of doing it,” Boyd said. “He’s always been mature for his age. He just owned it.”

Graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace — the guy who once was next in line behind Manti Te’o — said Day has found the right combination of being vocal and leading by example.

“He says the right things when they need to be said in the correct manner,” Grace said. “And he gets on upperclassmen, lowerclassmen, and you gotta respect what he says because he’s out there, he’s getting it. He’s playing great. And he’s not a guy who complains by any means. You can’t find any knock on Sheldon Day. He’s a tremendous teammate.”

When Day jogs on to the field at Notre Dame Stadium one final time Saturday against Wake Forest, he’ll do it as a critical member of an 8-1 team that’s three wins away from potentially reaching the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame isn’t in this position without everything Day has become.

“That’s going to be one of those tears of joy, tears of sadness because that’ll be it for that field,” Boyd said. “That’s the last home game. So that’s going to be bittersweet to look around and say that’s the last time I’ll see my baby playing on that field.”

[MORE: ‘Solidly’ at No. 4, would 11-1 Notre Dame be in the playoff?]

Boyd is grateful for everything Notre Dame has done for her son, which has supported him as he’s grown as a football player, student and man over the last four years. She’s grateful, too, for how the university has accepted her, too — she’s pretty much the team mom, a role she’s not willing to relinquish after Saturday’s final home game.

“I’m trying to find somebody to adopt,” Boyd laughed, saying she’s available for any incoming freshmen to keep her role as team mom. “… I cook, I clean, your mom’s too far away, I’ll see you. Just let me be your momma so I can keep coming to the game.”

But there’s only one player she could yell “that’s my baby!” for. That’s Sheldon Day, who will leave South Bend with a legacy of being a great player and great leader for a team that — depending on these next three weeks — could bring Notre Dame into its first College Football Playoff.

“I know if I see my mom cry it's going to make me cry," Day said. "But I'm going to try to stay strong. There are a lot of emotions last time running out of that tunnel in front of 80,000-plus. It's going to be a great time and a great experience. Just kind of overwhelming a little bit, and just to know that I've done a lot of good things in my career here, and I'm just happy that I can have a senior night.”

“I’m so excited,” Boyd said. “I might be so excited I’ll pick him up.”

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.