While our inside looks at Notre Dame’s spring practice have been few and far between (blink and you could miss the footage from the YouTube practice reports), the little news that’s been coming out of the Gug has been good.
Not about a quarterback battle that nobody inside the program wants to talk about. But rather about the return of linebacker Jarrett Grace.
After suffering a catastrophic leg injury that had some assuming that a medical hardship scholarship was going to end his career, Grace is working with the Irish defense, getting his chance to play linebacker again after spending the 17 months rehabbing.
With Grace back on the field and in full gear, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder spoke about Grace’s return to action, making it seem that Notre Dame’s starter from 2013 will have a chance to contribute to a linebacking corps that could be the strength of the defense.
“He’s been excellent. He’s a very intelligent player who couldn’t play last year so all he did was study, study, study,” VanGorder said of Grace. “He’s way ahead of guys that have played because of that.
“He’s an amazing guy. There was a point and time where I didn’t know if he would ever play football again. I had my doubts. So to see him out there, says everything about who he is.”
With Joe Schmidt limited for spring as he recovers from a broken ankle, Grace gets additional reps that’ll give the coaching staff every look they need at a linebacker some believed was the heir apparent to Manti Te’o.
Where and how Grace fits into the defense remains to be seen. Brian Kelly laid out what he thought the linebacking depth chart would look like as he opened spring.
James Onwualu will be the same linebacker, though when defenses demand a larger presence on the edge Greer Martini will be that player. Jaylon Smith is staying at Will linebacker, backed up by freshman early enrollee Te’Von Coney. At Mike, Schmidt may be capable of moving inside or out, but he’s not coming off the field. So until further notice, he’ll be leading a deep position, with Nyles Morgan and Grace both playing catch up.
The mental reps Grace took throughout 2014 when it looked like his playing career was in jeopardy say so much about one of the team’s best natural leaders. And they’ve allowed him to thrive this spring, even as he works his way back into playing shape.
Grace’s recovery and story won’t be complete until he’s on the field next season. And after so many positive updates from Kelly—each incremental step of progress never getting him closer to the football field—it appears that the fifth-year senior’s detour is finally (almost) over.
“I see Jarrett Grace of old with how he’s moving,” linebackers coach Mike Elston told Irish Illustrated. “He’s never really been an elite athlete like a Jaylon Smith. What he’s lacked in that, he’s made up in his grit, competitiveness and knowledge of the offense and knowledge of the defense he’s playing. All that stuff is starting to come out.”