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Notre Dame's Stephon Tuitt dominates in Pinstripe Bowl

Andrew Weber / USA Today Sports
Notre Dame DE Stephon Tuitt recently received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board.

If Saturday's Pinstripe Bowl was the final college game for Notre Dame junior defensive end Stephon Tuitt, he went out with a bang.

Tuitt had four tackles and 1.5 sacks, and the Irish defense helped paved the way for a 29-16 victory over Rutgers, which finished with just 236 total yards.

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After the game, Irish coach Brian Kelly said he expected a decision from Tuitt on the NFL draft "very, very soon."

Earlier this week, Kelly said Tuitt received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Tuitt went into this season as one of the most hyped defensive ends in the nation, but his recovery from offseason hernia surgery went slower than expected, and it took him about half the season to truly return to form.

Tuitt (6-foot-6, 312 pounds) led the Irish with 7.5 sacks this season, 4.5 fewer than he had last season. When he is at his best, Tuitt has tremendous quickness for his size. His versatility is a selling point to NFL scouts -- he was inside as a tackle at times when the Irish went to a 4-3 set -- but that quickness was not a constant this season, and his overall level of play lagged behind last season's.

At least one teammate, junior nose tackle Louis Nix III, is hoping Tuitt returns. Nix tweeted to Tuitt shortly after the game ended that he hopes Tuitt returns.

If Tuitt does return, he won't play alongside Nix, who is going pro a year early and already has hired an agent.

The Pinstripe Bowl definitely was the final college game for much-maligned Irish senior quarterback Tommy Rees, who threw for 319 yards and helped the Irish roll up 494 yards of offense. Rees was turnover-free but also touchdown-free; Irish kicker Kyle Brindza made five field goals, and both Notre Dame touchdowns came on the ground.

Notre Dame finished 9-4 a season after going 12-1, and finishing in the lower-tier Pinstripe Bowl was a far cry from last season's national title-game appearance. Kelly called it "good year that could have been a great year."

He also already is looking ahead to next season: "If we have a quarterback with the ability to run the ball, we will be difficult to defend." Next season's quarterback, barring injury, will be Everett Golson, an extremely mobile quarterback who led the Irish to the title game last season before being suspended this season for academic reasons. He already has been re-admitted and will enter spring drills as the starting quarterback.

If Tuitt turns pro, it would be a big loss for Notre Dame and would mean the Irish have to almost totally rebuild their defensive front seven, as well as break in a new defensive coordinator; Bob Diaco left to become coach at Connecticut.

Offensively, things look brighter with the return of Golson, a deep group of tailbacks and some promising young receivers. The left side of the offensive line is a potential trouble spot, though, with the loss of tackle Zack Martin and guard Chris Watt.

As for Rutgers (6-7), this was its final game as a member of the AAC; the Scarlet Knights head to the Big Ten next season. That's a prospect that should make the likes of Purdue, Illinois and Indiana happy because Rutgers should remove that trio from the "who is the worst team in the Big Ten?" discussion.

Junior wide receiver Brandon Coleman, who already has announced he is going pro, did have a TD catch against Notre Dame. But he caught just two passes on the day and finished the season with only 34 receptions. He has a ton of talent, and that he caught just 34 passes makes you wonder if the current offensive staff understands the value of getting the ball to the team's best player as often as possible.

Mike Huguenin can be reached at mike.huguenin@nfl.com. You also can follow him on Twitter @MikeHuguenin.

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