Three summers ago Louis Nix III arrived at Notre Dame unsure of himself, his surroundings and the future.
All through his freshman year the Jacksonville, Fla., native wrestled with a major transition from Raines High School and the community back home to something foreign. Nix often wondered if he had made a mistake during the recruiting process.
Should he have stuck with a verbal commitment to Miami? Could he head back to the comfort of his family and a program closer to home? Should he stick it out?
“My freshman year that was one of the decisions I had to make,” Nix said. “Either staying here or going home. I had a lot of support from my family, the coaches and players to say, ‘You can get through this despite being from different communities and different high schools.’ I thought about leaving a lot, going back to Florida and playing for someone else.
“But I worked through it and it just made me who I am today. People love me. I’ve come to work harder outside, helping people in the classroom. I think it made me who I am and I’m happy I stayed.”
Since those uncertain times Nix has blossomed into one of the nation’s elite defensive linemen and perhaps the biggest personality on a team full of sharp, outgoing players. He has endeared himself to a legion of fans as Irish Chocolate, one-man wrecking crew on the field and affable off it.
Over the course of this senior season, likely his last in South Bend before pursuing the NFL (he has a fifth year available), Nix hopes to prove himself worthy of pre-season hype that includes membership on several watch lists.
Doing so will require improvement on a sometimes dominant junior year.
Nix led all Irish defensive linemen with 50 tackles from the nose guard position, where he anchored one of the best defenses in the country. He recorded 7.5 tackles-for-loss and two sacks. After defeat in the national championship game Nix embraced offseason conditioning to work toward staying on the field even longer.
He also watched the loss to Alabama about “three times a week.”
“People consider me one of the top d-tackles,” Nix said. “Coach (Kelly) probably considers me the best d-tackle on the team. I’ve gotta show that. Me being on the field as much as possible to help the team would be the best thing for the team. During this camp that’s one thing we’ll try to achieve, me being on the field as much as possible.
“That’s a big step. I’ll get pushed by my teammates and my coaches to be out there more and be considered more than just a two-down player.”
Nix spent spring break in Arizona working out rather than going home or hitting the beach. He returned there again during the summer for more work, coupling it with the regimen prepared by Notre Dame strength and conditioning guru Paul Longo.
Notre Dame’s initial fall roster lists Nix at 357 pounds, although he contends it’s not that much. Head coach Brian Kelly has said Nix is in the best shape of his college career, regardless of roster figures.
Nix acknowledges camp, which begins this week at Shiloh Park in Marion, Ind., will be the be first test of his offseason conditioning.
“Throughout the whole summer you do the conditioning and you get used to it,” he said. “Now it’s like you put on the pads, you get out in the heat, you put on the helmet and it’s a different type of story. I feel like I was in shape for the stuff coach Longo put in front of me. I pushed myself. He made me pass out a couple times almost. When we get on the pads we’ll see what happens. I’m just going to take on this challenge to stay on the field as much as possible and get started.”
Taken on the whole, Nix’s summer could be a microcosm for his career in South Bend.
Rather than opt for what might have been easier, Nix has embraced the Notre Dame journey. All in all, he feels better for it.
“Life is a circle,” Nix said. “When you do good things you get good things out of it. When you do bad things it comes back to haunt you.”