SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The southern tip of Walton County sits 13 miles from Monroe Area High School, where Stephon Tuitt was determined to get to for his school's first summer workouts. The blistering Georgia heat can be unforgiving, especially in June. And yet with his mother at work and no other transportation method at-hand, Tuitt took his first literal steps toward leaping from junior varsity contributor to varsity starter in 2009, traveling the distance by foot.
That 77-yard fumble return Tuitt ran back Saturday for his first college touchdown, the one with Navy's quarterback and running back trailing in the distance? Yeah, it was fast. It also covered 68,409 fewer feet than his initiation into prep stardom.
"We were done and he was sweating bullets," Monroe coach Matt Fligg said of that first workout. "So from then on we picked him up."
Tuitt couldn't burst onto the scene as a can't-miss prospect without first going to great lengths just to be able to play. And he can't be where he is now — a Notre Dame sophomore whom Mel Kiper Jr. refers to as arguably the best defensive lineman in college football — without the work he puts in when the curtains are drawn, from running with the Irish defensive backs in drills to establishing himself in the classroom.
Notre Dame's home opener Saturday is against Purdue, which was spared last season when Tuitt missed a Friday morning class less than two months into the fall semester, costing him a spot on the bus to West Lafayette. Coach Brian Kelly's threat to have Tuitt's mother visit, plus an apology to the entire team, ensured that a mistake like that would never happen again.
A freshman campaign overshadowed by fellow rookie end Aaron Lynch — and one cut two more games short because of mononucleosis — gave way to a summer in which Tuitt, in Kelly's word, wanted to "dominate" in everything he did.
"I've always been like that, it's just been more of an increase, just going at a higher level," Tuitt said. "You just know you've got to take it another level, because there are many other players out there that are working the same way that you are, and there are many other awesome players out there that have the same skills. And everybody's trying to make it to one place."
The 6-foot-6, 303-pounder's long score in Dublin was one sign of that. Behind the scenes, teammates have described a versatile defensive end who comes in for extra work on Monday and is unafraid to drop into coverage, handling Cierre Wood step-for-step when the 1,000-yard tailback breaks wide out of the backfield.
"He's fast, he's a freak, plain and simple," right tackle Christian Lombard said.
"It's crazy what that guy can do," fellow end Kapron Lewis-Moore added.
But the spotlight was on Lynch much of last season, the Florida newcomer leading the Irish in sacks (5.5) and hurries (14) en route to a freshman All-America campaign. Homesickness sent Lynch to USF this spring, with questions surrounding the defensive line.
Tuitt said after the first game that he doesn't want to talk about Lynch. Back home this summer, he privately issued his former coach an edict, one that is becoming more public with each befuddling display of athleticism.
"We talked a long time about it, they were good friends," Fligg said.. "He just said, 'They won't have to worry about him being gone, because I'll pick up the slack. I'll take care of business.'
"But he's not cocky, that's just confidence. He's got so much confidence now it's amazing."