SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt understands he doesn’t always have to record a tackle or sack to affect the outcome of a play.
Sometimes it’s just as important for the 6-foot-6, 303-pound sophomore to be a disruptive force and allow one of his teammates to make the play.
I take a lot of pleasure in that, said Tuitt, who is second on the team with five quarterback hurries. I might not have made the play. I might not have tackled him or anything, but just being a factor, that’s part of a great play, knowing one of our DBs or linebackers intercepted a ball or cut in and got a fumble. That’s a big play.
Tuitt’s understanding of his role in the defense is one of the steps he has taken to become a complete player for the No. 7 Irish (5-0), who play host to No. 17 Stanford (4-1) on Saturday.
Tuitt has 16 tackles and a team-high six sacks this season. As a freshman, he had 30 tackles and two sacks in nine games.
He’s got a unique blend of tangible traits coupled with the fact that he loves to play, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said of Tuitt. He really loves to play. So he’s got an intangible element of effort and intensity and passion, and he loves to play football. He was always like that. I remember watching him as a player in high school. He was fun to watch. He would fly around. He enjoyed his teammates. He enjoys coaches. He enjoys practice.
What is changing is he is starting to learn how to play fundamental, defensive football and play within a system and play among 10 other guys.
Tuitt started the season strong. He had four tackles, two sacks and returned a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown in the season opener against Navy, and he followed that with four more tackles and two sacks the next week against Purdue and four tackles and a sack against Michigan State.
But against Michigan and Miami, Tuitt only had two tackles in each game, and he didn’t record a sack against the Hurricanes on Saturday.
Tuitt’s production, though, isn’t just judged by statistics, according to coach Brian Kelly.
His numbers didn’t show a productive player, but he was outstanding for us in what we asked him to do against Miami, Kelly said. And I’m not just trying to take the counterpoint on this. This is how he was graded out by the defensive coaches and in my observation as well.
He was very, very effective for us in what we asked him to do on Saturday.
Tuitt’s teammates understand he is key in the Irish being the nation’s second-stingiest defense, giving up 7.8 points per game, and ranked in the top 20 in total defense (13th), rushing defense (17th), passing efficiency (10th) and sacks (20th).
Tuitt comes to work every day with the mindset he’s going to get better, and while he’s getting better he’s going to get his teammates better, linebacker Manti Te’o said. He just has that drive. He has a God-given ability and God-given talent. You combine that with his work ethic and desire and you get Stephon.
That usually creates a very special player, so we’re very lucky to have Stephon on our team.