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April 23, 2013

Day rises to the challenge

Sheldon Day went out on a limb without knowing it.

During his Intro to Management course this semester Day grabbed a leadership role in a group project focused on corporate research. The defensive end’s team mined NetApp, a network storage company whose vice chairman is Notre Dame alumnus Tom Mendoza.

Day decided to e-mail Mendoza for insight into the company, not knowing the alumnus was the same Mendoza who endowed Notre Dame’s business school, ranked No. 1 nationally for three years running.

“I thought it was another Mendoza, maybe a cousin or something,” Day laughed. “I didn’t really see it as a big deal until he kind of e-mailed me back. My team told me his history and everything, ‘Oh that’s the guy on the Mendoza building!’ He’s a great guy.”

Three semesters into his Notre Dame experience, Day has made a habit of leaping before looking. He usually sticks those landings.

He enrolled early a year ago, then watched classmate Tee Shepard bolt before spring break. Day fought his way onto the field last fall, then battled injuries. Before his second spring practice Day watched three more classmates quit, including friend and early enrollee Gunner Kiel.

Day emerged from those three tumultuous semesters, which included playing in the BCS National Championship Game, one of Notre Dame’s most improved players. After surprising the coaching staff in his first season, he surprised teammates in his second spring.

“He’s so much better. He’s a handful,” said offensive tackle Zack Martin. “I think the biggest thing with him is he’s got a motor on him, so if you’re blocking him you’ve got to go from whistle to whistle. He’s not gonna stop. He’s improved so much.

“That defensive line with him, (Louis) Nix and (Stephon) Tuitt, there’s not much better in the country than that.”

Notre Dame doesn’t have a set depth chart but there’s no doubt Day won the defensive end job vacated by Kapron Lewis-Moore. During the open practice a week ago, he beat Martin on outside rushes, applying pressure to Everett Golson. He made just one tackle during the Blue-Gold Game.

Tony Springmann backed up Day during spring with Jarron Jones running third.

“I really worked on disengaging this spring and I really felt like I improved,” Day said. “I am a short guy. I accept my shortness. Just throwing that out there. I play with low pad level so I kind of get under younger guys. I kind of like to lock out quicker. When the ball declares I can make my move.”

Even if Day didn’t get any taller this spring, he got stronger. Still listed at 286 pounds, the former four-star recruit traded bad weight for good this off-season.

It showed to the guys blocking him. It showed to the coaches developing him.

“Sheldon Day is a rare player. He really is,” said defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. “He’s an excellent student. He was in high school math class one day and the next day, he was at Notre Dame taking classes, and there was no drop-off. He’s an outstanding 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 mayor of the town. He’s got energy every day. He’s smiling. He’s happy. He’s like the energizer bunny. He’s such a fantastic young guy, and he’s fundamentally sound, he plays hard, he’s got leverage, he understands the plays, he’s got good football intelligence … He’s a special guy.”

Day got interested in business at Notre Dame after connecting with a finance teacher at Warren Central. That swayed him off a previous path toward anesthesiology.

“I didn’t really know if I could do all that,” Day said. “If I give somebody too much (medicine) they could die, I didn’t want that on my hands.”

Consider that one challenge Day avoided since arriving at Notre Dame. It might be the only one.

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