NOTRE DAME — In recent years, the jersey number opponents scouted on the Notre Dame defensive line was a single digit.
It was the No. 9 (and later, No. 1) of Louis Nix and the No. 7 of Stephon Tuitt.
Now it’s No. 91.
It’s the number worn by junior defensive end Sheldon Day, who has neither the size of Tuitt nor the camera-grabbing flash of Nix. But what he lacks in stature and pizzazz, Day makes up with a newfound sense of leadership.
Because senior Ishaq Williams is suspended during Notre Dame’s ongoing academic fraud investigation, Day finds himself the only defensive lineman on the team who has started more than one game. In a matter of months, Day has been catapulted from a young, quietly productive end to the outright leader of the line.
“I used to be this shy guy,” Day said. “Well, I wouldn’t call me shy, but I would kind of sit back and observe so many things, and now I’m up front saying things, communicating, trying to be the best football player I can be and the best teammate I can be.”
Defensive line coach Mike Elston, who recruited Day from Warren Central in Indianapolis, knew the leadership capabilities were there all along. But there wasn’t enough space in the spotlight next to the physically imposing Tuitt; the affable, entertaining Nix; and the loud, spirited Kapron Lewis-Moore before them.
“Sheldon came in and had success early, but he had some upperclassmen that had some strong personalities so he really wasn’t able to grow in the leadership role,” Elston said. “So that took a backseat to his development.”
Now that Tuitt and Nix are both on NFL rosters, Day has unequivocal command of the Irish defensive front. Along the way, the not quite shy, but not yet assertive defensive end found his voice. And coaches are taking note.
“(Being) vocal, to me, is that he's not afraid to say something to somebody else about not living up to the standards that they need to, in whatever they are, the way they handle themselves on or off the field. That's vocal,” head coach Brian Kelly said during a Tuesday, Aug. 19, press conference. “He's vocal to the point where he'll hold others accountable. That's great leadership to me.”
Day has embraced that role starting in the spring and continuing through fall camp. He knows how to approach fellow linemen like Andrew Trumbetti, Jhonny Williams and Jonathan Bonner because they are freshmen who are being asked to contribute right away — as Day once was.
His advice to them boils down to playing with “a swagger, how you feel about things, how you approach things,” he said.
Helping his younger teammates has only improved Day’s own game. He now sees the forest through the trees.
"(I’m) breaking everything down, the entire game, trying to know the entire defense instead of just knowing what the defensive line does.“ he said. “When it comes to the defensive line, I’m trying to teach them. If they’re messing with their hands, I’m not letting that go or if they run off the ball. Just little things like that. Trying to correct all the little things so we can all be great.“
At 6-foot-2, 285 pounds, Day is an ideal fit for the new, aggressive scheme defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is implementing this season. His relatively smaller stature allows him to be quicker. His “high football IQ,” as Elston calls it, makes adopting the strenuous system easier.
"He has always been very productive on the field and now he has the whole complement of his leadership, bringing other guys with him and the production on the field is as high if not higher than it ever has been,” Elston said. “Knock on wood, Sheldon is going to have one heck of a year.”
And he can’t wait for opponents to scout him.
“It’s just a good feeling knowing that you’re being that singled out guy,” Day said. “They’re saying ‘We need to block No. 91.’ When that focus is all on you, it kind of builds up the excitement to play in the game. I wouldn’t call it pressure. I would see it as a challenge or something like that.
”If you think you can double team me, well let’s see you do it.”