NEPD Editor: Oliver Thomas
In the coming weeks and months leading up to the 2014 NFL draft, NEPatriotsDraft.com will profile college prospects that potentially fit the needs and draft seating of the New England Patriots. In this sixth installment, we will take a closer look at the film behind Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt.
Size. Strength. Speed. Versatility.
As a defensive lineman and tight end at Monroe Area High School in Monroe, Ga., Stephon Tuitt brought all four traits to the table. And after the football program went 0-20 during his sophomore and junior campaigns, his traits helped lead a turnaround.
Tuitt and the Hurricanes went 11-2 in 2010, forging it into the third round of the Georgia Class AAA state playoffs. In the process, Tuitt forged into the recruiting picture.
He found himself ranked the 38th overall prospect in the nation by Sports Illustrated and 22nd by Rivals.com. He found himself competing in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio, Texas, as well as the Team USA vs. The World All-Star Game in Austin.
Shortly thereafter, he found himself in South Bend, Ind., as member of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
Tuitt enrolled at Notre Dame in the fall of 2011, and it his presence was felt almost immediately. He played in nine games as a freshman, starting three, while compiling 30 tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and one deflection. He earned third-team Freshman All-America honors from Phil Steele, in result.
He took the next step in 2012, starting all 13 games to tally 47 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, a team-high 12 sacks – second in school history – along with three forced fumbles, a 77-yard fumble recovery for a touchdown, one pass deflection and a blocked kick. In turn, he garnered first-team All-American accolades from Sports Illustrated, ESPN.com and CBS Sports, as the Irish went 12-0, prior to the BCS title game in January.
The season didn’t end on a positive note; and for Tuitt, the pain continued into the offseason. He underwent hernia surgery, but its lingering effects carried over into his junior year season. Though those effects left him behind the curve, heavy-legged and less dominant, they didn’t keep the 20-year-old from being a hazard for offenses.
By the time it was all over, Tuitt had started all 13 games to record 49 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, one interception returned for a score, two pass deflections and a forced fumble. He was a first-team All-Independent pick. He was also tied for third in Notre Dame history with 21.5 career sacks.
He would remain tied for third, however. After taking a trip back home to discuss his future with his mother, Tuitt announced on Jan. 5 that he would forgo his senior season and enter the NFL draft.
His momentum has taken a hit since then, as a scan at the NFL Scouting Combine revealed a Jones fracture in his left foot. That small fracture kept him off the field during on-field workouts in front of potential employers. But as a 6’5”, 304-pounder with 34 1/4-inch arms, 10-inch hands and the upper-body strength that translates in 31 bench reps of 225 pounds, injury won’t take Tuitt off many boards come May.
One of the boards Tuitt figures to be on is the New England Patriots’. As a run-stuffer and pass-rusher built to line up anywhere from the seven-technique to the nose, Tuitt fits the bill for most defensive fronts. And while it remains to be seen if he fits the plans of head coach Bill Belichick in the first- or second-round range, what has been seen is his game film.
Courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com, here is a closer look into No. 7.
Not a Run-Stuffer, But a Patient, Disciplined Run-Defender
When you watch Tuitt in run defense, you may be underwhelmed by his burst off the snap and his lack of consistency shooting into gaps. But if you’re underwhelmed by those facets, you might be looking in the wrong place.
Tuitt isn’t the aggressive, over-pursuer that prevalently sacrifices gap integrity to deliver a hit in the backfield. Instead, he’s patient; he knows the responsibilities of a given assignment; he stays parallel to the line of scrimmage and keeps the play in front of him.
He stays at home more often than not, trusting his eyes to make correct decisions in run defense. And this is evident when defending the read-option. In this case, he understands how to sit on the play, bending his knees, dropping his arms and pacing his feet. He watches the football and only begins to chase once he identifies the exchange of possession.
With broad shoulders and the height to play across the line, Tuitt looks the part of an imposing run-stopper. He is a gifted athlete; however, he lacks the flexibility and suddenness to immediately change direction against well-braced offensive tackles. This makes him more of a five-technique or a three-technique at the next level.
When he’s combated by combo-blocks, there are concerns about his solidity. Inline tight ends can surprise him with lower pad level, taking him out of his comfort zone as well as the play. Double-teams also can eat him up, particularly in play-side run defense. But there are also times when the initial punch of the lineman knocks him down and unable to recover. And furthermore, when he is able to permeate the backfield on a handoff, he can leave himself susceptible to the halfback cutback, playing one step behind the runner and occasionally diving to no avail.
That said, Tuitt can stack and shred. And when he is asked to set the edge, he knows how to hold his ground, bind the tackle box, and delay the development of the run.
This was evidenced versus USC on Oct. 19.
On a 1st-and-15 early in the third quarter, the Trojans offense assembled in “11” personnel for a handoff to 5’10”, 212-pound halfback Silas Redd. The play would test Notre Dame’s 3-3 nickel defense in terms of pursuit and gap maintenance, as the zone-blocking scheme would lead leftward and send three linemen up to the second level.
Tuitt stood in stop it from five-technique right end, directly over 6’7”, 275-pound left tackle Chad Wheeler.
As quarterback Cody Kessler handled the snap and angled back towards Redd, the combination blocks got underway. Nix was temporarily doubled by the center and right guard to neutralize the interior, while the left guard and right tackle grazed past the defensive ends on their way to linebacker territory.
Tuitt would have to control the play side. He bent his knees into the block and extended his left arm around Wheeler’s inside shoulder while driving into contact.
Redd received the exchange and made his way towards the B- and C-gaps. But there, disrupting the lanes was Tuitt. He had established leverage and the inside track towards the ball-carrier, gripping his hands underneath the left tackle’s arms and pressing through.
As Redd made his pivot back inside towards the B-gap, Tuitt timed the release of his press.
It caught Wheeler on the tips of his toes.
And it caught Redd off guard.
Tuitt pounced back in front of the run, regaining balance by pushing off the tackle with one arm and casting around the running back with the other.
Tuitt latched on and didn’t relinquish, even as his feet grew distant from his upper body.
Tuitt swung his right arm around Redd’s back, and that propellant brought the back to the ground in one swift motion.
It went for a gain of two, but it also it also exemplified his ability to occupy open space and dictate the course of the run.
Tuitt takes proper angles and finishes plays off by getting the most out of his wingspan. And that unheralded athleticism goes a long way towards accelerating defensive adjustments.
Not a Prototypical Edge-Bender, But a Powerful Clean-Up Pass-Rusher
Tuitt moves well for a man of his size. But his lateral agility can also get him out of control. His strong arcs around bookends can result slips on occasion. He can also be mirrored in pass rush when he doesn’t provide a counter move to free himself. And when he tries to spin back between two blocks, he can be stifled by a side punch when his back arches.
All things considered, though, those parts are not the sum of Tuitt’s game. He isn’t 6’5”, 260-pound stand-up edge defender; he’s over 40 pounds heavier.
Tuitt thrives in pushing the pocket and cleaning up what’s left. He can bench blockers and rip or swim move out on his way into the backfield. He showcases an impressive side step, which can expand and slice the offensive line in response. From there, he can flush the quarterback outside the hashes, shift to cover tailback screen, or read the quarterback’s eyes and bat down passes.
Now there are times when he overextends with his heavy and violent hands, sending him stumbling onto the turf. There are times when he vacates the line, affording the QB a runway to scramble through. There are times when he plays high out of the gate – perhaps a drawback of his length and stamina – failing to sink his hips and giving up leverage at the point of attack.
He’s not without flaws as a pass-rusher, but Tuitt has the skill to overcome them. When he maintains lean through the turn, he can regain stability after cut blocks nearly serve as spike strips. He displays active movement in his arms to replace the hands of the blocker as he circles around the C-gap. And as he sets his sights on the QB, he has the downhill fluidity to close in.
Tuitt did just that against Arizona State on Oct. 5.
The Sun Devils offense lined up in a four-wide, one-back spread with 6’2”, 201-pound quarterback Taylor Kelly in shotgun. His receivers on the far hash were prepped for inside-releasing go and drag patterns, respectively; his receivers on the near hash were prepped for outside-releasing go and deep cross patterns, respectively.
And concurrently, Notre Dame countered with 3-2 dime package. Within it, Tuitt played essentially a seven-technique – shading the right tackle – albeit on a three-man line.
As Kelly took the snap and dropped back to go through his progressions, all but three defenders dropped back into coverage.
Tuitt was one of the remainders. He was veering outside the C-gap, luring 6’5”, 289-pound right tackle Tyler Sulka along with him.
Kelly evened his stance and waited for his receivers to separate. But quickly separating off the right side of the line was Tuitt. He had swerved one foot over the other and dipped his inside shoulder, manipulating his opponent into bending at the waist to regain positioning.
With clean hand movement, Tuitt drew Sulka head over heels. In doing so, he had cleared up a straightaway between himself and the quarterback.
He enclosed rapidly, raising his arms to strike as Kelly pulled his arm back to throw.
He did. And in the aftermath, the ball was jarred loose.
Sulka pick up the fumble, shortly after conceding the sack.
Tuitt’s production is not merely a byproduct of playing alongside touted nose tackle Louis Nix III and outside linebacker Prince Shembo. His production is a byproduct of his own performance.
His prolific sack totals have their place.
When it comes to size, strength, deceptive quickness and interchangeability, Tuitt is one of the most promising defensive linemen in the 2014 class. He’s two years younger than most draft prospects. And due to that that room for growth, there is a belief that his best days are ahead of him.
Although there are questions about his injury history, his conditioning coming back from injury, and his subsequent descent after a prevailing 2012 season, positives outweigh negatives when it comes to Tuitt. He is scheme-adaptable for a hybrid defense, lining up as both a one- and two-gapper. He presents worthwhile value in the top-50 draft range as a result.
He’s a cerebral football player who owns his responsibilities in run defense and pass rush. There may be better plug-and-play alternatives, but Tuitt has proven to be a dynamic force that can alter a game, inside and out.