Posted: Sun January 5, 2014 9:16PM; Updated: Sun January 5, 2014 10:09PM
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Notre Dame defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt will enter NFL draft

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Stephon Tuitt
Junior Stephon Tuitt (7) has 20 career sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in his Notre Dame career.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Notre Dame already faced a sizeable defensive retooling for 2014. Now it must contend with yet another gargantuan hole along the line after Stephon Tuitt told SI.com that he has decided to head to the NFL.

Tuitt, a monstrously athletic 6-foot-6, 322-pound defensive end, first revealed to SI.com on Sunday that he will forgo his final season and declare for the NFL draft, taking his chances on becoming what most consider to be a consensus first-round choice.

"I just relaxed, thought about it, hung out with my family, prayed about it," Tuitt told SI.com in a phone interview. "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."

It is no particularly surprising move -- a source said Tuitt's Irish teammates considered him gone following the Dec. 28 Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers -- and Tuitt confirmed that he'd been leaning toward the NFL over another fall in South Bend.

He said he just needed to clear his mind during a visit to relatives in New York following the bowl game, then return to Georgia to finalize the decision with his mother. In fact, Tuitt claimed none of the evaluations from draft analysts factored into the choice at all.

"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."

Irish coach Brian Kelly said before the Pinstripe Bowl that Tuitt received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board. Tuitt shrugged that off, too.

"That's not going to stop me from working hard and doing the things I need to do to get a higher grade," Tuitt said.

After a sluggish start thanks to offseason surgery to correct a sports hernia -- an injury that he claimed was no factor in this process --Tuitt finished with 49 tackles in 2013, including 7.5 sacks. His 12 sacks as a sophomore in 2012 represented the second-highest single-season total in Notre Dame history.

Tuitt said he did not have an agent selected nor does he have a training plan in place. But what is clear is that Kelly and his new defensive coordinator have an even bigger challenge for 2014. Tuitt is gone along with nose guard Louis Nix III, meaning the Irish defense will be without two linemen with first-round pick prospects who, in theory, could have been on the field against Rice to open next season.

As part of the deal -- at least with his mother -- Tuitt said he will return to Notre Dame to earn a degree at some point. For now, he said he's "at peace" with leaving the place behind.

"I would like to say I thank Notre Dame for everything that they did for me, I love that school, I love that program," Tuitt said. "I had an awesome three years there. The coaches, the fans, I couldn't ask for much better people than them. They made my game experience the best time of my life. I'll always be Irish."

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