- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Stephon Tuitt received a lesson in just about everything during a freshman campaign that featured three unexpected starts, two different positions, a pair of sacks, a one-game suspension and a crippling, late-season battle with mononucleosis.
Competing in his first spring, the sophomore-to-be is hoping his eventful debut season has hardened him for Year 2 at Notre Dame.
"What I learned this spring was toughness," Tuitt said. "I'm learning more toughness this spring, going through some things I never went through. But also I'm learning more technique, being this is like my sixth year playing football, I'm still learning, still have the ability to learn.
"Practicing with this great defense of ours, everybody here has respect for each other, everybody here has loyalty toward each other, everybody here plays their butts off for each other and that's one thing I'm learning, having fun with my defense."
(Tuitt also learned, thanks to noseguard Louis Nix, never to swallow a spoonful of salt again. "I don't advise nobody really to do that," he laughed. We'll spare you the visuals, which are available via a quick YouTube search.)
Injuries to all three of the Irish's season-opening starters across the defensive line forced Tuitt into action early last season, as he shifted between end and noseguard. Oversleeping a class cost him the two-hour trip to Purdue for a Week 5 win, but an apology in front of the team -- coupled with the threat of a visit from his mother in Georgia -- showed Tuitt was not about to slip into any bad habits early in his college career.
"All that stuff was like a learning experience," he said. "That don't make me a bad person because I did that. The way I acted after I did that, the maturity that I was able to grow after doing something like that, really made me a better man. These days I'm going to class, I'm doing all the things that I'm supposed to do off the field and also doing the things I'm supposed to do on the field as well, and it just all makes me a better man and a better football player."
Mono cost him 15-20 pounds and the final two regular-season games, but he responded in the Champs Sports Bowl by teaming with fellow freshman end Aaron Lynch to combine for eight tackles, three tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and four hurries.
Lynch said earlier in the spring that he and Tuitt play with the mindset that they want to kill once they get on the field together, and Tuitt acknowledged the silent competition between the two fuels them in everything they do. (Lynch's mother, Alice, indicated on Twitter that her son had returned to campus Monday night, as coach Brian Kelly said he would following an excusal from practice last Wednesday to head home to Ohio for personal reasons.)
"Lynch is a great player," Tuitt said. "He has some stuff that I can't do and I have some stuff that he can't do, and both knowing from each other, competing against each other every day even through the bads and goods, being by each other's side is always taking our game to the next level. And being able to go play with each other, we learn stuff from each other, we do plays, almost like a brother, 'You're gonna do this, I'm gonna do this, and it'll just work just like that.'"
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