Not every contributing true freshman later becomes a reliable, consistent sophomore (or junior/senior, for that matter).
And not every fan and media talking point is worthy of such designation. Message boards and long off-seasons often turn teenagers learning the collegiate ropes into mythical superstars. Then the bullets go live, and 23-year-old men turn those too-young pups into graded road on football Saturdays.
"Honestly, Sheldon Day is a rare player, he really is," said Day's defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. "He's an excellent student. He's one of the favorites on the team, the guys all love him. He's involved in different activities outside of this building. He's like a mayor of the town.
"He has energy every day, he's smiley, he's happy. Have you been around him? Get around him, he's like the energizer bunny. He's a fantastic young guy. And he plays hard, and he's got leverage, and understands the plays and he has high football intelligence.
"He's a special guy."
Rarely prone to effusive praise, Diaco notably offered his pupil's attributes as a both a student and athlete. Day's chief tutor Mike Elston -- another not known for handing out unearned plaudits -- likewise focused on his sophomore's overall development between and outside the lines.
"He's an outstanding young man and I'm very happy with his progress. He's going to be an outstanding player," said the four-year Irish defensive line coach.
"He's a student of the game. Its important to him. That's not just in football, it's his whole life. He just has it all put together. It starts with his home life. His mom has done a great job with him and I couldn't be happier with him. He's a great kid to be around and does everything we ask him to do. And he's coachable. When he doesn't do it right, we tell him that he doesn't and he fixes it. He does a great job. I'm very happy with Sheldon Day."
Practice Field vs. Fall SaturdaysIt's clear that if a Young Man of the Year award was part of Notre Dame's end-season awards banquet, Day would be a prime candidate. But what about September 7 in Ann Arbor and in the challenging weeks that follow? After all, plenty of great guys and hard workers have found their way under the Dome.
"I mean, I know all the talk is about (Louis) Nix and (Stephon) Tuitt, but I tell ya, Sheldon Day, just watch the film: his first step quickness, he's an impressive football player," said head coach Brian Kelly earlier this week.
"I wouldn't trade him for anyone on our football team right now. He's as impressive of a player as we have on defense. His motor -- right now, if there's an eight-play drive (in scrimmage), he does not come out of the game. He's the one (DL) that does not come out of the game. His work volume, his ability to go, his pass-rush ability…he's an outstanding football player."
And he's surrounded by outstanding collegiate talent and experience, not only future pros Nix and Tuitt, but potential 2013 All-America Prince Shembo and three more seniors on what should be one of the nation's best front sevens.
The lone underclassmen, Day's presumed ascent this fall was a major question mark for outsiders breaking down Irish title chances. But what happens to a defensive front when the young "question mark" is apparently the hardest player to block?
"He has that instinct for being able to get off the ball really quick as a D-lineman which is really important," said teammate Chris Watt, a 5th-year guard that faces Day daily. "He's a little bit smaller, which can make it tough to get your hands on him, but he's quick enough to make a difference in the play.
"Yeah, Sheldon can be tough at times. He's a guy that's going to go 100 miles an hour every time and you don't usually encounter that on every snap. He's one that does it."
Watt's left-side line mate Zack Martin -- one of the two best players on the football team -- offered similar praise.
"He's short but he has comparatively long arms, I guess," Martin said. "So you can keep you off his body. Sheldon just doesn't stay blocked often."
The humble Day acknowledges he works hard at his craft.
"Coach Elston did a great job with me, working on my throw-offs, so I'd give him the credit for that," said Day of his ability to shed. "The lock out (technique) and having violent hands, that's pretty much the key to beating blocks.
"I guess I really never noticed it (having long arms) until someone brought it to my attention. I guess I'm short, and I don't know what it's like to be tall, so I suppose it comes natural. I feel like I have to improve it still at the college level."
Talent + Dedication = Continuous ImprovementElston and Diaco's tutelage has doubtless helped, but both Elston and Kelly noted that Day's instinctive ability to shed offensive linemen might not be wholly teachable. You either have it (initially) or it'll be a struggle to develop along the way.
"You'd like to say that's coaching, but…" Elston joked. "He was trained very well in high school. When its very important to you at that level and you take in and absorb the coaching there, it helps. He plays with such great pad level and leverage, and his technique is what allows him to get off those blocks.
"When you recruit a short guy, he has to compensate in other areas. His initial quickness and his arm length is very long, so when he locks Zack Martin out, its not a short guy lock out, its a big guy lockout. So he's able to get the guy off of him, disengage, and go make plays. If you're going to recruit a shorter guys you're going to have to measure their arms to make sure they'll have length."
For Day, plaudits are fine, but work -- a lot of it -- remains.
"It comes natural," said Day of the sport. "If I didn't have it I don't know what I would do. Its in my DNA. My brother was coaching football and I was playing soccer (in sixth grade). I didn't really want to play football because the seasons intermix. But he made me try football and since then I've been rolling with it."
Right to the top of the depth chart on one of the nation's best front sevens.
"Its a great opportunity," Day said of playing with the team's veterans up front. "They're great leaders and they move my game forward. I have a lot of great people around me and it helps be become a better person and a better player."
The latter appears set. Irish fans can only hope the former will reach the heights promised.
Note: Click the links below for previously published column in our 20 For a Title series: