SOUTH BEND – Purdue caught a break a year ago when it played Notre Dame. Sure, Boilermaker fans will dispute that after getting shellacked 38-10 at Ross-Ade Stadium. But at least the Fighting Irish (1-0) didn't unleash Stephon Tuitt on Purdue like they will today (3:30 p.m., NBC).
A year ago Tuitt was an immature and inconsistent player filled with potential that hadn't been tapped into. That's beginning to not be the case anymore, which is terrible news for whichever quarterback is taking snaps for Purdue (1-0).
When Notre Dame traveled to West Lafayette last season, Tuitt sat back in South Bend as a punishment for missing a class earlier in the week. Fast-forward 12 months and the 6-foot-6 defensive end isn't letting anything – on the field or off – skip by according to Irish coach Brian Kelly.
“The only word I remember him using was dominate,” Kelly said. “Dominate in the classroom, which (Stephon) did in the summer, over 3.5 (GPA). Everything he did, he wanted to be the very best.”
In Notre Dame's season-opening thrashing of Navy (50-10) a week ago, Tuitt was the very best at wreaking havoc in the Midshipmen offensive backfield. He registered a team-best two sacks and finished with four tackles and one of the more memorable fumble recoveries in Irish history.
Tuitt was in the Navy backfield when the Midshipmen quarterback got hit and fumbled the ball. In perfect stride, Tuitt scooped up the ball and took off running. However, being a 300-pound man-child, the odds of him making it 77 yards to the Notre Dame end zone without being caught by a Navy player were slim?
That would be a definitive “no.”
“When we ran 3:50s,” Kelly explained, “which is some of our summer workouts, each group works individually by their position group and each one has a time, and as you can imagine, the (offensive) line are a higher time than maybe the defensive backs. (Stephon) was running with the defensive backs.”
Tuitt sprinted without slowing a bit 77 yards for the first touchdown by a Notre Dame defensive lineman since 1996. No Navy player got close to him.
The progress that Tuitt has made emotionally and physically is supposed to happen for each player, but doesn't always happen. It takes a great deal of determination and ultimately, maturity.
“Very raw,” Kelly said to describe Tuitt as a freshman. “Not knowing what he was capable of. We thought we knew what he was capable of. So I think a lot of that has to do with confidence in being here for a year and seeing how he could excel, not only on the football field but at Notre Dame and in the classroom. And then once you see that, and sense it and feel it, then that fire is lit. And the fire is lit with him to dominate and be the best at everything he does.”
Purdue will most assuredly employ a number of different quarterbacks in today's game. Caleb Terbush will start and not only poses a passing threat, but he's a runner as well. Robert Marve is more of a prototypical drop-back passer.
Tuitt can be effective against either style, which is another sign of his development. A year ago he didn't play against Michigan due to the Wolverines having a runner extraordinaire in Denard Robinson at quarterback. Tuitt simply couldn't be trusted at the time to remain disciplined enough to contain that type of player.
He'll be on the field a lot today, however.
“He's been on this mission of, whatever it is, and it's not just football,” Kelly said. “It's everything in Stephon's life. It's film study, last night, he's in there film studying, taking notes, and I think just a very, very driven young man right now.”