The Two Sides of Stephon Tuitt
Andrew Owens | Thursday, September 13, 2012
When observing Stephon Tuitt on a football field, it’s easy to be struck by his supreme physical attributes or the unique facemask he requested to wear this season. But beneath the 6-foot-6, 303-pound frame is a soft-spoken, fun-loving college sophomore who loves his mother – and the hobby she taught him.
“I love to cook,” said the standout defensive end, who became engulfed in his culinary hobby at age 13. “If I feel like I can create it, I cook it. I learned to cook from my mom and also just always having a little knack about me to go to the stove and cook.
“I cook for a good amount of people on the team. They admire my ribs. I cook for a couple other people too and they love everything I cook.”
Long before Tuitt dabbled in the kitchen or picked up a football, his mother, Tamara Bartlett, raised the future five-star prospect from Monroe, Ga., to always set aside time for family.
“My mom is a special woman,” said Tuitt of Bartlett, who travels to four or five home games each season. “She’s strict, but at the same time she’s funny and loves to cook and watch movies and do the things we can as a family. We can’t do a lot because we’re not in a financial point to do everything we want to do, but we always have great family times.”
This season, Tuitt looks different on the field, and not only because of his play. After watching former Irish and current New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck – the school’s single-season leader in sacks with 13.5 – wear a facemask that resembles Optimus Prime during Super Bowl XLVI, Tuitt was enamored by it.
“It was really tight so I thought I’d bring it out and change it up a bit and have fun,” said Tuitt, who is on pace to record 24 sacks during the regular season. “There’s been a lot of [positive reaction] so far after the things I did in the first two games. I’ve been playing really well. People started to notice the facemask is different.”
But the facemask isn’t the only part of Tuck’s game Tuitt appreciates.
“I love the things he does,” Tuitt said. “[Tuck and Houston Texans defensive end Mario Williams] are a special thing for me to be like and go on the field and play like absolute beasts. It’s a great feeling to have those two to look up to.”
When Tuck was on campus for April’s Blue-Gold Game, Tuitt said the NFL star attended a defensive meeting and chatted with the sophomore briefly before being pulled away on a tight schedule.
‘A freak, plain and simple’
During Notre Dame’s season-opening 50-10 victory over Navy, Tuitt scored his first career touchdown – a 77-yard scamper the former tight end said he will never forget.
The whole time he was running down the field – and outrunning Navy’s skill position players – Tuitt had one word on his mind.
“Run,” he said.
“I knew if I get caught, I get caught. There are skill people way faster than I am, but I just ran with all my heart and didn’t know I was scooting away from everyone while I was running.”
Tuitt said the voice message he most anticipated when returning to the country was from his mother, though he couldn’t decipher what she was saying.
“Screaming,” he said. “You couldn’t hear her.”
Tuitt is fast enough that he asked Irish coach Brian Kelly to run sprints with the defensive backs during a summer workout.
“I tried to run with the [defensive backs] to maybe get fast,” Tuitt said. “I know they’re faster than me – they’re way faster. But if I keep running with them everyday and catch up with them, I know I’m getting faster myself. I just wanted to be a faster player.”
Although the race wasn’t even close, he said he needed to prove to himself that the defensive backs could actually outrun him.
Irish junior offensive tackle Christian Lombard said he was amazed by a play Tuitt made during fall camp when the defensive end dropped back to cover senior running back Cierre Wood on a flare route.
“Tuitt was with him every step. He’s fast. He’s a freak, plain and simple,” Lombard said. “He’s very fast. He’s not just one type of player. He’s not fast or powerful – he’s both.
“You have to be ready for both and kind of play according to that.
Lombard said Tuitt has developed quite a bit since reaching campus, though he wasn’t exactly a pushover as a freshman.
“I remember he was pretty impressive when he came in,” Lombard said. “You could tell he was strong naturally. He’s a beast in the weight room and has only gotten better. You have to give him credit. He’s worked hard.”
Adjusting to college life
The transition from high school in Georgia to college in Indiana was a difficult one at times for Tuitt. He was suspended for last year’s win at Purdue after skipping a class, but he learned from the experience and has since settled into academic life at Notre Dame.
“The classroom’s steady. They’re hard like every other school, but if you just work and read and do the things you’re supposed to do in the classroom, it’s actually pretty easy,” said Tuitt, who earned a 3.5 grade-point average during the summer.
“It boosted my confidence even higher.”
With Tuitt mastering his craft academically and athletically, there’s one obstacle with which he said he continues to struggle.
“Eating right,” he said.
Tuitt said the adjustment to college is a process in which even the most gifted athletes and students need time to work out the kinks.
“You can tell me every freshman can go out there and be an All-American and I won’t believe you,” he said. “It’s different … If you don’t come in early and you come and are expected to play like you’ve been there for a year, it’s hard work … You have to get adjusted to classrooms and all the work and put it into times that you can finish all of it and manage your time.”
Kelly said he has noticed the maturation of his young defensive end.
“The only word I remember him using was ‘dominate,'” Kelly said. “Dominate in the classroom, which he did in the summer. Everything he did, he wanted to be very dominant.”
Although Tuitt is starting to realize his potential in many different aspects at Notre Dame and has improved his diet, there’s one complication he hasn’t faced yet: a true South Bend winter.
“I haven’t experienced a real winter here yet,” he said. “Last year was kind of like the South weather, so I can’t really answer that. I’ve heard about how bad it’s supposed to get and me being paranoid. I thought it was a joke.
“I’m worried about it this year. I heard what happened two years ago. I don’t want that to happen, so I’m wishing for it to be like last year.”
For Tuitt, new facemask or not, intimidation is not something that can be forced.
“The intimidation factor goes off me doing my assignment and making plays,” he said. “If you make plays, the offense will notice you and try to do stuff to get away from you. It’s not intimidation, it’s just me knowing the offense comes on the field and if it runs on my side it will be hard. If they do, they better send more than one guy.”
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