Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt is the latest underclassmen to declare for the 2014 NFL Draft, telling SI.com on Sunday that he will forego his senior season with the Irish.
Tuitt is the No. 2-rated defensive end and No. 20 overall prospect, according to NFLDraftScout.com ratings. The only end currently rated ahead of Tuitt is South Carolina pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney (No. 2 overall).
Tuitt, 6-feet-5 and between 305-330 pounds, is currently No. 21 on NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang's Big Board despite an underwhelming junior season.
"Clowney isn't the only highly regarded defensive lineman who struggled under the burden of monstrous expectations in 2013," Rang wrote. "After dominating as a sophomore, Tuitt began his junior campaign out of shape (after missing spring due to hernia surgery) and struggled with consistency all season. Highly athletic with the frame to star as either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, Tuitt's upside is just too tantalizing to ignore."
Rang projects Tuitt to go No. 14 overall to the Chicago Bears in his Mock Draft, while fellow analyst Dane Brugler sees Tuitt slipping to the New England Patriots with the 28th overall pick.
Tuitt leaving Notre Dame continued a busy day of news for underclassmen, who have until Jan. 15 to officially declare for the 2014 NFL Draft. Tuitt brings the list of underclassmen expected to make the jump to the NFL to 62, on pace to shatter the previous record of 73 set just last year.
Tuitt was long expected to leave Notre Dame following his junior season, and returned to Georgia to discuss the decision with his mother before making it public.
"I just relaxed, thought about it, hung out with my family, prayed about it," Tuitt told SI.com in a phone interview Sunday. "I'm ready for it, and this is something I want to do.
"I'm ready to take my game to another level. Research had nothing to do with it. All I did was work out pros and cons, and that helped me realize I have more pros than cons and I'm ready to go. I'm comfortable and confident and I'm ready to take this step for me."
Tuitt told SI.com that evaluations from the NFL Advisory Committee - a second-round grade according to Irish coach Brian Kelly - and others did not factor into his decision.
"I didn't look at any of that stuff," Tuitt said. "That stuff didn't mean anything to me. What meant more to me was, after the season was over, I thought long and hard and I'm ready to go to the next level. I prayed about it, talked to my family, I really took time to myself to see if I'm ready for that."
Kelly had held out hope Tuitt would return to school to finish his degree.
''I think you come to Notre Dame to get a degree, and I think getting a degree is very important in this whole process,'' Kelly said after the regular season.
Tuitt said part of the decision-making process with his mother was the agreement he will eventually return to Notre Dame to earn his degree.
Rang is impressed with Tuitt's length, power and "surprising quickness." He could be very scheme versatile with the size of many interior defensive linemen showing the ability to provide a rush off the edge.
Tuitt finished the 2013 season with 49 tackles, including 7.5 sacks, following up a sophomore season in which he had 12 sacks.
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