Truncated. Educational. Promising.
Each would be an apt description of Stephon Tuitt’s first year of college football.
After a brief debut vs. South Florida, Tuitt, along with fellow espoused “killer” Aaron Lynch, was inexplicably withheld from action in Week Two at Michigan. He rebounded to play significant minutes in the defensive line rotation – both at nose guard and defensive end – vs. both Michigan State and Pittsburgh as the Irish rebounded to reach 2-2 through the season’s opening month.
The first and only sign of trouble surfaced one week later with Tuitt suspended for the team’s trip to West Lafayette (he overslept and missed class).
"All that stuff was like a learning experience," Tuitt said this spring of a trying period last October. "That don't make me a bad person because I did that. The way I acted after I did that (Tuitt apologized in front of the squad), the maturity that I was able to grow after doing something like that, really made me a better man.
“These days I'm going to class, I'm doing all the things that I'm supposed to do off the field and also doing the things I'm supposed to do on the field as well, and it just all makes me a better man and a better football player."
He was better, or at least much more productive, almost immediately. The next four contests yielded three starts and 23 tackles including two for loss. But as Tuitt hit his groove and Notre Dame entered the season’s stretch run, the massive freshman’s season was again interrupted, this time by mononucleosis.
“Mono caused fatigue to make me feel sleepy, but it was almost (like it) made me feel lazy,” Tuitt said this spring. “No matter how much strength you want to put out there, you can’t because your body won’t let you. I felt really tired and had to rest and stay away from football. It was hard, but I did all I could to bounce back and get back with this wonderful team.”
The hardest part wasn’t the lethargy, or even the 20 pounds that he lost (and has since returned). It was that his identity had been stripped.
“It was hard to watch my boys go out and play every Saturday,” he noted of a Senior Day win vs. Boston College and prime time loss at Stanford. “It was hard on me, but due to my family being by my side and the strength and support of the coaching staff, and (their help) bouncing back and recovering from that, I wanted to make it back with my team. That really helped the fast recovery.”
Perseverance Pays Off
Tuitt made it back for the team’s Champs Sports Bowl loss in Orlando and fared well, considering his recent loss of strength, finishing with three tackles and a sack.
He nonetheless entered the spring as the lesser-known half (at least nationally) of a bookend pairing of defensive ends expected to lead the program out of mediocrity. But fellow sophomore-to-be Aaron Lynch quit the team Friday; his absence will be felt on the field and by his friend and fellow intense competitor.
“That is our mentality,” said Tuitt earlier this spring, referencing Lynch’s comments that the pair looks to ‘kill’ as they take the field. “As of now, me and Lynch know we can do some magic here, but we still have to work hard, know the plays, get coached up to move our games to the next level. Practice, practice. When the fall season comes, we’re going to talk with our pads.”
Only one of them will be talking with his pads inside Notre Dame Stadium. The expectations that accompanied the tandem now fall squarely on Tuitt’s shoulders.
“No stress. I don’t put that on my shoulders, people knowing who I am,” he offered (prior to Lynch’s defection.) “When I go out there and play, I play for my team, my family, and to win.
“Those are the three things I play for and those will always be the three things I play for.”
At present, Lynch and his teammates will be playing for each other while the rest of Irish fans and media nationwide ponder the team’s expected demise without one of the defense’s most promising athletes.
"Practicing with this great defense of ours, everybody here has respect for each other, everybody here has loyalty toward each other, everybody here plays their butts off for each other and that's one thing I'm learning, having fun with my defense," Tuitt offered.
Perhaps better prepared to handle the departure of a close teammate because of the trials of his freshman season, Tuitt offered an interesting element he added to his game.
“Just another level of toughness. Doing some things out of your comfort zone. It makes me a better player and my teammates respect me more as a player…stuff like that can take it a long way as a team.”
An old adage states “there’s no ‘I’ in team.”
Tuitt proves there’s no quit, either.