One of 35 early-enrollees at Notre Dame in the last 10 years, Sheldon Day arrived from Warren Central High School in Indianapolis where he had 55 tackles, nine sacks, and 12 quarterback hurries as a senior. Scout ranked him the No. 6 defensive tackle and 50th best player in the country coming out of the prep ranks.
Day saw immediate playing time for the Irish, appearing in all 13 games as a freshman, registering 13 tackles and sacks in back-to-back games against Michigan State and Michigan. He moved into the starting lineup as a defensive end in a 3-4 front as a sophomore, starting seven of 11 games and missing two (vs. Michigan State and Oklahoma in the fourth and fifth games of the season) due to injury.
Elected one of four captains as a junior in 2014, Day was in the starting lineup for each of the first 10 regular-season games before a knee injury sidelined him against Louisville and USC. He returned to the lineup against LSU in the Music City Bowl, where he helped lead the Irish to a 31-28 upset victory over the Tigers.
Day emerges as the premier defensive tackle in the country and draws comparisons to former Pittsburgh standout Aaron Donald, an eventual first-round draft choice, who won the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, the Outland Trophy and the Lombardi Award.
Perhaps a more realistic scenario would be a healthy season from start to finish -- which has been hard to come by for Day -- a significant increase over his career-high 25 tackles in a season, and a team-leading sack total from the interior of Notre Dame’s defensive line, doubling his career sack tally of 3.5.
As always, injuries can derail a promising season, but it’s particularly pertinent as it relates to Day, who has battled knee and ankle injuries each of the last two years, preventing him from fully maximizing his skill set. If healthy, Day should wrap up his fine collegiate career as one of the more productive Irish interior defensive linemen in recent decades.
As both a defensive end and defensive tackle at Notre Dame, Trevor Laws was a four-year contributor to the Irish cause after preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman in 2003. He played in all 12 games as a red-shirt freshman but did not start a game while making 17 stops. He became a three-year starter after that and had 74 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 6.0 sacks through three seasons, nearly mirroring Day’s totals of 57, 16.5 and 3.5 during the same time span.
Day has a lot to live up to in order to post a nearly-identical collegiate resume to that of Laws, who turned in a dominant performance in 2007 when he totaled 112 tackles and four sacks, prompting All-American consideration on a 3-9 team. The Philadelphia Eagles made him a second-round pick and 47th overall selection in the spring of ’08.
As a five-star prospect and No. 50 player in the country as deemed by Scout, Day has not lived up to those categorizations up to this point of his collegiate career. He also was the No. 1 defensive tackle in the state of Indiana, No. 2 at his position in the Midwest, and the No. 6 defensive tackle nationally, which are rankings Day can justify with a dynamic senior season and a relatively high draft choice, both of which are feasible.
Day’s career-high for tackles in a game came during his sophomore season in 2013 when he had seven stops and a pass broken up against BYU. One game earlier, he had five stops and three tackles for loss in a road defeat to Pittsburgh. Day had a season-high two tackles for loss to go with five tackles in Notre Dame’s victory over Syracuse in 2014.
Perhaps his top performance – in accordance with his defensive mates last season – was when the Irish held the Stanford rushing attack to just 47 yards rushing on 32 carries as Day anchored the line with four stops and a tackle for loss.
“My dream of playing in the National Football League remains strong, but when I chose to attend Notre Dame three years ago, I planned on earning a degree from this University. I’m only one semester away from reaching that goal. A diploma from Notre Dame is truly special, and ultimately, it wasn’t something I was willing to leave on the table.”
-- Sheldon Day, January 2015