Notre Dame: Stephon Tuitt walked quite the walk
By Mark Lazerus Sun-Times Media December 25, 2012 10:02PM
Sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt has 12 sacks, ranking in the top 10 in the nation. | Getty Images
Updated: January 27, 2013 6:29AM
SOUTH BEND — The path to Notre Dame — to stardom, to the BCS national championship game and almost certainly to the NFL — began with one small step for Irish sophomore defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
Well, more like 20,000 or so steps.
On a June morning in 2007, shortly after his freshman year at Monroe High School in southwestern Georgia ended, the Purple Hurricanes held a mandatory weight-lifting session for those students interested in coming out for the team in the fall. Tuitt, who hadn’t been allowed to play sports until he got a taste of junior-varsity action as a freshman, desperately wanted to go, to be part of a team.
But his mom was at work, and the school was some 12 miles away in the suffocating Georgia heat.
So he walked.
“I told my mom, I really want to do this,” he said. “After my freshman year, I was like, this is kind of fun, this is exciting. I never did anything like it. Just to be part of a team, I really wanted to do it. I felt it in my heart. So I was like, ‘I’m gonna walk.’ She was like, ‘You’re crazy.’ ”
By the time Tuitt got to school, the then-6-5, 230-pounder was a sweaty mess, gasping for air, and the team workout was just wrapping up. Coach Matt Figg let him lift anyway — and he made sure to get someone to pick up Tuitt at home from then on.
“I had already done my workout,” Tuitt joked. “I’ll always remember that. That right there, I get emotional talking about it. That started everything.”
That relentless work ethic allowed Tuitt to build himself up to 303 pounds while maintaining the stunning athleticism and speed that helped him return a fumble 77 yards for a touchdown against Navy. After spot duty as a freshman, he has 12 sacks as a sophomore, ranking in the top 10 in the nation and making Irish fans forget talented-but-troubled defensive end Aaron Lynch, who transferred after last season.
Irish coach Brian Kelly said Tuitt’s commitment to stopping the run, not just targeting quarterbacks, has made him a more well-rounded player. Defensive line coach Mike Elston said Tuitt’s biggest progression was learning to harness his raw strength and physicality.
“He wasn’t overly physical as a freshman, as you would imagine a freshman to be,” Elston said. “When he understands that he can overwhelm and change the game with power, and he does that, that’s the biggest improvement.”
Tuitt readily he admits he hit the genetic jackpot, a freakish combination of size and speed, power and agility. But size isn’t everything.
Tuitt came to college with minimal experience. He didn’t play youth football, he missed out on most camps in high school and he didn’t play much as a freshman at Notre Dame. So he’s still working on the finer points, such as bending his shoulder, using his hands more, coming off the ball quicker. Next year, he said, he’ll be even more dominant as he adds to his repertoire of pass-rushing moves.
“My size and my body, I’m blessed to have,” he said. “But my work ethic is really what got me to the point I’m at today.
It’s that same work ethic that allowed Tuitt to fight through an 0-20 record spanning his sophomore and junior seasons at Monroe High to lead the Hurricanes to an 11-2 record and the third round of the playoffs as a senior.
That work ethic led Tuitt to send a message on Twitter asking if anyone knew of any South Bend-area farms that were looking for volunteer help in the offseason. All those times going up against big, strong, corn-fed farmboys in the trenches — the kind he’ll face Jan. 7 against Alabama’s elite offensive line — convinced him that throwing around bales of hay every once in a while could only make him stronger. He has a couple of offers, and he intends to give it a try next summer.
“Some are close, just a couple minutes away,” he said.
And, yes, he has a ride.
“No, I’m not walking there,” he said. “No way.”