SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Sheldon Day stopped being a Notre Dame student-athlete in October.
That’s when the defensive tackle finished his degree from the Mendoza College of Business after taking one course that met once a week. And so Day tried to fill the days, getting extra treatment and watching extra film. He worked with a physical therapist from Indianapolis above and beyond Notre Dame’s training staff. And then he started cooking. Plus guitar, video games and drawing.
Within a senior year that’s gone exactly to plan on the field – Day won All-American honors and likely played his way up NFL Draft boards – his recreational quest off it was a complete disaster.
The musical and artistic dead ends should have been expected. Generally, 285-pound blocks of muscle don’t do fine motor skills, especially when trying to learn off YouTube. With video games he was too far behind Ronnie Stanley, Will Fuller and Chris Brown. So Day went to sleep instead of playing beyond 2 a.m.
But Day had to eat those culinary mistakes. And those stuck with him.
“I tried to do salmon and put barbecue sauce on it and put it in the oven, it tasted awful,” Day said. “I tried to do steak in the oven, I don’t know why, I might as well just grilled it, right? It was the worst decision of my life. It was really pink on the inside. It was just a bad situation for me and my cooking experience.”
With three days remaining in his college career, Day can laugh about those mistakes. Those lessons learned were easier to take than some of the others he’s navigated the past four years.
With two defensive coordinators and two defensive line coaches piled on top of three years of injuries, Day’s career will meet expectations only in its final act. The two-time captain’s relationship with the staff has been a curious one considering he tabbed assistant strength coach David Grimes as the most influential coach during of career.
When Brian Kelly made a run at Grimes during the Temple game, it was Day who pulled Grimes away.
It’s enough to make Day wonder if his Notre Dame experience was harder than he thought when he enrolled four years ago out of Warren Central on the east side of Indianapolis.
“It’s an up-in-the air question,” Day said. “I had the injuries that put me on pause sometimes, but I would definitely say it’s been a great four years. I wouldn’t really switch and change anything. I learned a lot of lessons. To face adversity and look at it head on, overcome those bumps in life.”
Day did that this season, starting every game for the first time while compiling a team-high 14.5 tackles for loss. He did that alongside freshman Jerry Tillery, not Jarron Jones and the double teams he’d command. With Jones back for the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State it’s enough to make Day wonder what could have been, even within a season that delivered on so much of its potential.
“I think it would have been a lot more 1-on-1’s as far as me, Isaac (Rochell) and Romeo (Okwara) go because Jarron is that double team guy,” Day said. “It would have been a totally different year.”
Yet it was still a good one for Day and the defensive line, which will need to overachieve one more time against Ohio State’s spread run game with Ezekiel Elliott and quarterback J.T. Barrett. In a 42-13 demolition of Michigan last month that tandem combined for 49 carries, 353 and five touchdowns.
Ohio State finished the season averaging 5.66 yards per carry, which ranked No. 9 nationally. Only Navy was better among Notre Dame opponents.
“A great back, very explosive when the ball is in his hands,” Day said. “He seems to draw a lot of attention. They can run a fake to him and be running with the quarterback. Everybody thinks he has the ball.
“He more than likely makes the first man miss. It’s all about rallying to the football and making sure that if one person touches him, five other people are hitting him right after that one touches him.”
And that’s Sheldon Day’s real final exam.