At the start of the 2013 season, Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly extolled one of his D-linemen as an every down guy, a player of boundless skill and potential. Perhaps surprisingly, he wasn’t talking about the then highly heralded Louis Nix, III, or Stephon Tuitt or even the enigmatic Ishaq Williams. Instead, Coach Kelly was talking about a rising sophomore, Sheldon Day, who, as a Junior in 2014, may be the key to Irish championship aspirations.
While the return of Everett Golson and the rise of Malik Zaire may be larger stories, Sheldon Day’s presence along first year Defensive Coordinator Brian Vangorder’s 4-3 scheme may be the more important. In the 6’2″, 290 pound junior from Indianapolis, Sheldon Day would likely be better known to Irish fans but for a high-ankle sprain he suffered against Purdue. Still, and despite missing two games, Day notched 33 tackles, 21 of which were solos, 5.5 of which were tackles-for-loss. One wonders what could have been had Day, Nix, and Tuitt managed to have been together for more than the 23 snaps they were last season.
But, the real question facing Notre Dame in 2014 is what impact Vangorder’s 4-3 scheme will have on Day, whose speed and agility may allow him to flourish in ways that Coach Diaco’s 3-4 system did not. In the 3-4, Day played a “two gap,” position, in which he was responsible for the gaps on either side of the offensive tackle. In Vangorder’s 4-3, Day will line up in a “3 technique” and shoot the gap to the outside shoulder of the offensive guard.
Day is clearly capable of playing in any defensive scheme and is clearly able to produce against any offense. As a freshman in 2012, he played in a thirteen games and tallied 23 tackles and two sacks. Against Alabama in the NCG, he had three solo tackles. He finished behind only Stephon Tuitt in tackles last season.
With all the questions on offense, those answers should really fall within known extremes, given the stable of talent in the backfield and the known talents of Golson and Zaire. It is on defense that Notre Dame has more to fear, given how thin they are at linebacker and how they will deal with the loss of Tuitt and Nix. If those questions have good answers, they will likely start with Day.