One of the most closely watched juniors this season will be Notre Dame defensive end Stephon Tuitt.
He was a national top-50 recruit out of suburban Atlanta in 2011 and started three times as a true freshman that fall, finishing with 19 tackles and two sacks. Tuitt (6 feet 6, 322 pounds) then burst onto the national scene last season with a big-time sophomore campaign. He led the Irish with 12 sacks -- second-most in school history in a season -- and added 47 tackles, three forced fumbles, nine quarterback hurries and a blocked kick.
Tuitt has excellent quickness for his size; he also has good strength and was used inside at times when the Irish went to a 4-3 set.
NFL.com draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah puts it succinctly: "It's hard to find players with his size, strength and pass-rush ability."
He is apparently a student of the game, too. Tuitt, who has gained about 20 pounds since last season, told reporters earlier this month that he reached out to former Chicago Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher but was unable to get in touch. Why did he want to talk to Urlacher?
"I just wanted to really know getting into the season what would he focus on, what would he do? Just to get a little insight," Tuitt said.
Despite all the positives, there are some concerns about Tuitt. His production lagged noticeably in the second half of the season -- he had only 3.5 sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in the final six games -- and scouts have noticed that he isn't consistent with his fundamentals and sometimes plays too high.
The decline in production partly was a result of an injury that required offseason surgery for a sports hernia.
"This year, I'm working hard, I'm perfectly in shape, I'm ready to go," Tuitt told reporters earlier this month.
He could go to the NFL after the season. His mom, Tamara Tuitt-Bartlett, told the Chicago Tribune that earning a degree (Tuitt is majoring in anthropology) was her main concern last year. Now, she admits she's thinking different.
"He knows my side," Tuitt-Bartlett told the Tribune. "I mean, it is his life. If he comes out, he definitely will have to get his degree. I don't care how he does it, but it definitely has to happen. I wouldn't want an opportunity to pass him by, but getting your degree is very, very important.
"The NFL is going to be there. If he has a good season, we'll look into that. There's no definite."
Five defensive ends went in the first round of the 2013 draft (all but one was an underclassmen), and 33 were drafted in all.
Tuitt will play a key role on what should be another stingy Irish defense. The Irish lost four starters off last season's 12-1 squad, including end Kapron Lewis-Moore (sixth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens) and linebacker Manti Te'o (second-round pick by the San Diego Chargers). But the line still should be stout with Tuitt and 357-pound senior nose tackle Louis Nix III, and there is excellent experience and leadership at linebacker. In addition, true freshman linebacker Jaylon Smith is living up to the hype (he was a consensus national top-five recruit) and could start. And the cornerback duo of senior Bennett Jackson and sophomore KeiVarae Russell has the potential to be one of the best in the nation.