In 2012, lost amidst headline-drawing stories involving former Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s Heisman race, an undefeated regular season and a national championship appearance, is what propelled the Fighting Irish to success in the first place: outstanding defensive line play. Defensive ends Stephon Tuitt and Kapron Lewis-Moore, anchored by nose guard Louis Nix, battled Notre Dame’s defensive unit through the trenches and up the statistics board, with the Fighting Irish finishing 7th in total defense and 2nd in scoring defense, allowing a paltry 12.77 points per game. With potential question marks on the offensive side of the ball yet again in 2013, Notre Dame will rely on its defensive line to repeat its dominant performance, with all eyes centered on All-Americans Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix after losing senior defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore to graduation.
The expectations for junior Stephon Tuitt have risen since his breakout campaign in 2012. Dotting pre-season All-American lists and widely predicted by experts to be a 1st round NFL draft selection should he decide to join the NFL ranks early, Tuitt is beginning to see that additional scrutiny attaches itself like a leech to all those who stand out on the collegiate gridiron.
Tuitt’s scrutiny does not stem from off the field issues akin to those of LSU starting running back, Jeremy Hill, nor does it originate from a combination of off the field issues and alleged improper benefits in the mold of Heisman Trophy winner, Johnny Manziel. No, the criticism reserved for Tuitt involves his weight, or, to be more exact, its inflation.
Stephon Tuitt stood a sturdy 6’6” and 303 pounds in 2012 when he terrorized the nation’s quarterbacks for a total of 12 sacks. By the end of September Tuitt had opened everyone’s eyes, nabbing 6 sacks in the first 4 games. The then-sophomore was so dominant he was neck-and-neck with future 1st round draft choice, Bjoern Werner, of Florida State. Werner held a .5 sack lead over Tuitt, though Werner’s were gained against the likes of Murray State, Savannah State and Wake Forest, while Tuitt dominated Division I opponents Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan.
Tuiit’s numbers leveled off as the season progressed due to the effects of a sports hernia he suffered, notching only 6 more sacks during the final 9 game stretch. The hernia began the scrutiny, as Tuitt arrived at spring practice after surgery weighing 322 pounds. The 20 pounds of extra padding caught attention, though it was chalked up as post-surgery weight gain that wouldn’t matter in the long run. The sympathetic tone changed when Tuitt arrived at fall camp several months later at a consistent 322 pounds.
Why has Tuii’s weight remained at 322 since spring practice? Will he be able to maintain his 2012 effectiveness 19 pounds heavier? While Tuitt may desire to dismiss such questions and prodding, telling the media he feels he has regained his pre-hernia explosiveness and that he “just [goes] out every day and practice[s] and my body will react the way it does,” isn’t quite enough. If anything, the defensive star’s unease addressing the subject and his attempts at deflection add anxiety to the situation, particularly considering Brian Kelly has previously stated his desire for Tuitt to not top the 315 pound mark.
Does the weight gain really matter in the grand scheme of things? A look at the other sack leaders in 2012 provides a certain measure of context. Quanterus Smith, a defensive lineman from Western Kentucky and 5th round draft choice of the Denver Broncos, racked up 12.5 sacks in 2012, leading the nation with 1.25 sacks per game. Smith set Hilltopper records while measuring 6’5” and 250 pounds.
Will Sutton, a nose tackle for the Arizona Sun Devils, recorded 13 sacks while standing 6’1” and 288 pounds. Morgan Breslin, starting defensive end for the USC Trojans, racked up 13 sacks while measuring in at 6’2”, 250 pounds. And finally, South Carolina standout Jadeveon Clowney, whom Tuitt has most often been compared considering the two are likely 1st round draft selections, weighs in at 6’6” and 274 pounds.
Should the Notre Dame faithful be worried that Tuitt outweighs Clowney by nearly 50 pounds? Though Clowney and Tuitt play in different defensive schemes and have different responsibilities, the disparity in weight is at least a mild concern, even if Tuitt played nearly 30 pounds heavier than Clowney last season. If a large portion of 2013’s success rests on the ability of Notre Dame’s defensive line to dominate, and the coaching staff is forced to rotate Tuitt more often with a depth chart that has yet to establish itself in training camp, issues could emerge.
With two weeks to go until kickoff against Temple, there is still time and opportunity for Tuitt to slim down during the rigors that football camp provides. And Notre Dame strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo has proven himself to be one of the best in America, placing Tuitt in extremely capable hands. But should ND fans sweep the weight gain under the rug as a non-issue to the success of the football team in 2013?
Not a chance.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles as well as co-founded a nationally-featured non-profit organization. In his spare time he takes his NCAA Football ’13 online dynasty way too seriously and alienates those around him by discussing football 24 hours a day. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.