Sept. 11, 2014
By Denise Skwarcan
Tonight's game at Lucas Oil Stadium will be a special homecoming for University of Notre Dame junior defensive lineman and Indianapolis native Sheldon Day. During the past two-plus years, Day has made the trek from Indianapolis to Notre Dame and back on numerous occasions, but this particular three-hour trip certainly will be one he won't forget.
"I enjoyed growing up in Indianapolis," Days says of being raised in Indiana's state capital. "My mom raised me well. I grew up on the east side on the rough side of town, but she tried to keep me away from the bad things that went on. I remember playing out in the yard with my friends, playing little games that we made up and playing football down the street...we had a lot of good times."
Eventually, Day became a starting member of the defensive line for Warren Central High School. His four-year prep career culminated in an 11-1 record and a No. 1-ranking as a senior in 2011. The squad's only loss was in the sectional final to eventual Indiana 5A champion Carmel. But for his effort Day, who accounted for 55 tackles, 12 for loss, nine sacks, 12 quarterback pressures, two fumble recoveries that season, was named Marion County Coaches' Player of the Year as part of the Indianapolis Kiwanis Club's 55th annual high school awards ceremony.
It wasn't long after playing his final high school game that he enrolled in classes at the Notre Dame in January 2012. While the northern Indiana school many have been relatively close to his home and family, playing for Notre Dame was not part of Day's initial plans when he first started looking at colleges.
"My first thought was to go to Michigan," says Day who grew up cheering for the Wolverines. "Then as the recruiting process opened up it, I began looking at schools on the east coast like Virginia Tech and North Carolina. I thought I might want a change in scenery and weather and experience a different part of the country. But quickly, I realized that I was a momma's boy and I decided to stay closer to home at attend Notre Dame."
But it wasn't just being in close proximity to his family in Indianapolis that drew Day to Notre Dame. Shortly after making a visit to campus, Day had an appreciation for the sense of family that exists within the campus community and on the football team.
"It was just the way they made me feel when I visited," Day says. "The guys on the team made me feel like I already was part of the program when I came for a visit during my junior year in high school. They accepted me as one of their own and I wasn't even part of the team yet. That really stood out to me."
Little more than a month after starting classes at Notre Dame as an early enrollee, Irish head coach Brian Kelly received positive reports on the likeable and gregarious freshman, characteristics and traits that have proved important in helping him be successful in his first two seasons.
"The thing we love about Sheldon is not only his personality and who he is, but his incredible motor and great work ethic," Kelly says. "Since he arrived on campus, I have had nothing but positive feedback from everyone associated with our program about his work volume and ethic and the enthusiasm he shows for what he is doing. Sheldon is a dynamic player and one of most talented defensive players in the country. He's had an immediate impact for us ever since he stepped on the field."
As a freshman during Notre Dame's 12-1 season that culminated with an appearance in the BCS national championship game, Day managed to find playing time in all 13 games with a top-notch defensive unit that included veterans Kapron Lewis-Moore, Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt among its top linemen. Day was responsible for 23 tackles, 13 of them solo stops, and two sacks during that season.
"The 2012 season certainly was an incredible year for me for a variety of reasons, Day says. "Playing at Notre Dame at such a high level and having the older guys on the team really support me has helped me become the player I am today.
"From the first game in Ireland against Navy, that whole season is something that I will never forget. I remember taking my first college snap in the game. I was so nervous because I didn't know what to expect. In the week leading up to the game in practice, I was always getting yelled at because missing my assignments. As I look back on it now, however, it was definitely a great experience and probably the best trip of my life."
The experience he gained and the extra work and effort he put into making himself a better player following his rookie season earned Day a spot in the starting lineup in the 2013 season opener against Temple, and in subsequent contests versus Michigan and Purdue. However, in the third game of the season against the Boilermakers, an ankle injury sidelined Day for the next two games against Michigan State and Oklahoma, but it also played havoc with his physical and mental psyche when he returned to action. Once he returned following the game against the Sooners, he played in the final eight contests and registered the second-most tackles (33) for all defensive linemen.
"I was kind of transitioning from a young freshman to a sophomore last year and I needed to play more," Day says. "I didn't think my sophomore year was any easier for me than my freshman year. I was still concerned about messing plays up because I didn't want to let my teammates and coaches down. I was holding myself to a high standard.
"Then the injury happed and it was hard to be out of those two games that I missed. It was difficult seeing the guys out there kind of struggling a little. When I did come back I didn't feel as explosive or quick, and every time some little thing happened it (ankle) would flare up again. I was really nervous, played tentatively and was just emotionally down because of the injury. It wasn't until the game at Stanford that I felt my confidence return.
Spring practice in 2014 brought no reoccurring ankle problems for Day, so the next step for him in making himself a better player was to shed some weight. With the help of the strength and conditioning staff and an athletics department nutritionist, Day dropped five pounds to a svelte 285, and increased both his bench and squat presses by 30 pounds.
Day has noticed the difference in his speed on the field, and that in turn, has helped him part ways easier with his favorite snacks.
"I cut out a lot of sugars and added more protein to my diet," Days says. "I really credit Coach (Paul) Longo with pushing me in the weight room and helping cut down on my body fat. I miss my oatmeal cream pies and honey buns, but I feel more explosive and can penetrate better inside which only has benefitted my game."
Another step in Day's development recently came when he was selected a team captain. Defensive line coach Mike Elston notes that Day's mental growth and maturity have caught up to his physical growth. Elston and his pupil hope that his newfound maturity translates into more productivity on the football field this season.
"I recruited Sheldon out of high school and he came as a freshman and had some early success," Elston says. "But we had some upperclassmen that had some strong personalities so he really wasn't able to grow as a leader; that took a backseat in his development. He always has been very productive on the field, but now from a leadership standpoint he has the whole package. His production on the field is as high, if not higher, than it ever has ever been during his career. Knock on wood, but I am expecting Sheldon to have one heck of a year."
"I've been breaking everything down, from having to know the coverage we need to be to understanding the whole scope of our defense and not just what the line needs to do" Day says. "When it comes to the defensive line, I'm trying to teach and help my teammates correct all the little things so that we can be great. I've changed a lot. I wouldn't call myself shy, but now I am more assertive about how I say things and communicate with my teammates. I'm just trying to be the best football and teammate that I can be."
Despite learning a new, more aggressive 4-3 scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Day remains confident in his ability as well as that of the entire Irish defense. He's prepared for the realization that opponents will be focusing more of their attention on him this season.
"It was a long three weeks of (fall) camp, but at the end, there was a point where we finally understood our identity. Day says. "I'm just really focused on our defense playing together and really having a breakout season."
With more than 30 ticket requests for family and friends to juggle, Day is looking forward to this weekend's trip home to play in the familiar confines of Lucas Oil Stadium (where he played at least one game a year during his high school career) and a trip down memory lane.