Jarrett Grace

Grace opens up about the long road back


When Jarrett Grace broke his leg in four places, the linebacker’s career nearly ended. Eighteen months later, Grace is back on the field, and back a part of the master plans for the Irish defense.

The one-time heir apparent to Manti Te’o met with the local media on Friday. And he spoke candidly about the long road back to the field, and a rehabilitation that required a new rod reinserted into his surgically repaired leg, and some tough, tough moments before the breakthrough.

Eric Hansen of the South Bend Tribune has a great feature on Grace, who talked candidly about life after the initial surgery.

“When you see the X-rays, it’s, ‘Oh that thing’s shattered.’ I had to get a rod in there. And they’re telling me about this surgery, and they’re hammering that thing in,” Grace recalls. “The doctor is telling me, ‘You can try to walk on it.’

“And I tried to a couple of days after the surgery. And I’m like, ‘Holy Cow, this doesn’t feel as good as you say it should.’ Blood’s like coming out of my stitches. I’m trying to shower. I’m yelling to my mom. So she’s bathing me in my bed, actually. I couldn’t do anything for myself.”

Here’s Grace on some of the dark moments before an additional surgery last spring replaced the rod in his leg and put his rehab back on schedule.

“I didn’t always believe in myself,” Grace said of the early stages of recovery when the prognosis didn’t match the progress he was supposed to be making. “I guess there was doubt, because when you look at it, it looked terrible. And you feel terrible.

“So that can compound itself, and then you’re getting depressed, because you’re not doing the thing you love, which really drives you, which you’re passionate about.

“So I went through some times when I wasn’t myself. I didn’t feel very good. I wasn’t sure what was going to turn out of this. Sometimes (all) I wanted was to be able to walk again, just for my future health and for the sake of when I have children someday.”

But that’s all changed this spring. When head coach Brian Kelly said Grace was a full-contact go for spring practice, more than a few eyebrows were raised. Yet Grace has answered the bell, even ringing his own in full-contact drills that kept him out of a practice before returning to the Irish defense last week.

Grace has been a standout in spring practice, the mental reps he took during 2014 preparing him for the on-field opportunities he’s had this spring. And with Jaylon Smith cross-training as an outside linebacker, the Irish are getting prepared to utilize Grace, Joe Schmidt and Nyles Morgan as inside linebackers, three very good players for two positions. Once a long-shot hope to play, Grace is now part of the blueprints.

The journey back isn’t complete. Not until Grace takes the field against Texas to open next season. But for the first time since he was the Irish’s leading tackler at the end of October in 2013, Grace is in the middle of the Irish defense.

And that’s quite a story.

Irish eye key OL recruit Liam Eichenberg this weekend

247 Sports

Round one of Notre Dame vs. Ohio State went to the Irish, when Ohio native and coveted 2016 OL recruit Tommy Kraemer committed to the Irish last fall. Round two appears to be coming to a close as both the Irish and Buckeyes battle for blue-chip lineman Liam Eichenberg.

The Cleveland and St. Ignatius product will be in South Bend again this weekend, taking a final look at Notre Dame before a visit to Ohio State will conclude his recruiting visits. Then Eichenberg plans on making a college decision.

Per BlueandGold.com, Eichenberg is just one of a handful of key recruits on campus this weekend. He’ll be joined by OT Ben Bredeson, the No. 1 rated player in Wisconsin and one of the top offensive tackles in the country.

Two 2017 prospects from Cincinnati’s St. Xavier will also be watching Saturday’s open practice, with quarterback Sean Clifford and lineman Matt Bockhorst also on campus.

While Bredeson already holds an Irish offer, the focus will likely stay on Eichenberg. Visiting with his parents, grandparents and brother, Eichenberg told Irish 247 what he was thinking about heading into the home stretch of his recruitment.

“I just want to spend some time with the players and the coaches,” Eichenberg told Tom Loy at Irish 247. “My main focus this weekend is to look at the depth chart with Coach Hiestand and see where I would fit in if I were to end up there. I want to see what it would be like as a student-athlete if I were to end up at Notre Dame. I’ve been there a lot, so it’s nothing new, but I do want to see where I would fit in on the field as a freshman.”

At Ohio State, early playing time is definitely part of the sales pitch. According to Eichenberg, Meyer—and former Irish assistant Tony Alford—having a spot in the starting lineup with his name on it.

“Ohio State has been telling me that I would pretty much come in and start right away at guard as a freshman,” Eichenberg told Irish 247. “I was told that Coach Meyer talks about me every day in meetings and he is talking about how much I’m needed.”

The Buckeyes have four returning starters projected on their 2015 offensive line and signed (literally) 12 offensive linemen in the last two recruiting classes, but it’s no surprise that Meyer, Alford and former Irish assistant Ed Warinner are pitching a job to Eichenberg.

Along the Irish front, 2016 could have a few openings as well. Nick Martin will be gone and Ronnie Stanley is expected to be as well. Guard Steve Elmer will be a senior, Mike McGlinchey will be a veteran and redshirt freshmen Alex Bars and Quenton Nelson are likely to be in the mix. But if Eichenberg is as good as the Irish staff thinks, he’ll have a chance to get in the mix, though Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand‘s preference seems to be redshirting.




Jaylon Smith cross-training opens up linebacker log jam

Notre Dame v Arizona State

As Notre Dame’s defensive coaches try to deal with their latest champagne problem, linebacker Jaylon Smith seems like a lone constant.

He’s not coming off the field.

With the linebacking corps stocked with talent and Smith one of college football’s most versatile and freaky athletes, Smith was cross-training at outside linebacker on Wednesday, a move both head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had talked about this spring.

Smith’s shift outside returns him to familiar grounds. As a freshman, he played outside in Bob Diaco’s system, a drop linebacker asked to turn and cover more often than setting the edge. Most think his future is outside as well, with the NFL likely using Smith in space.

But after learning to play in the trenches last year because the team needed him on the inside, Smith’s cross-training should open up the depth chart next fall, pairing him with James Onwualu on the outside.

“Jaylon now has played the Sam and he’s playing the Will. We feel like now he has his reads down, a comfort level playing inside. We can now look to a bigger, physical presence on the perimeter with a James Onwualu,” Kelly said of a possible platoon. “So if you want to put a tight end in there and play more physical, we have a guy like Jaylon who could step up and play there.”

Physicality wasn’t necessarily part of Smith’s strengths last season, especially late in the year when teams ran right at Notre Dame’s leading tackler. But a move to the outside allows the heavy banging in the trenches to be Joe Schmidt, Nyles Morgan and Jarrett Grace’s job—a three-for-two that could also include sophomore Greer Martini and early enrollee Te’Von Coney.

“I think we’ve all talked about with Joe Schmidt, now Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan, we have to find a place for those guys. And Te’Von Coney. Those are inside guys,” Kelly said. “We have to be able to get those guys on the field.

“Jaylon now allows us in certain situations to move him out on the perimeter if we want to get Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace on the field with Jaylon, we can now do that. We have to be able to look at that to get the right set of linebackers on the field at the same time.”

That Jarrett Grace has gone from spring success story to a part of the Irish plans is great news. It’s even better for the Irish defense, giving Notre Dame a true thumper that can take reps at the Mike linebacker spot and be up to speed on the mental necessities of the position.

After having little depth in the linebacking corps, the position is now the deepest on the defense. And that allows Smith’s greatest asset—his versatility—to shine through, giving VanGorder essentially a new sports car in the garage.

Irish QB battle will (understandably) head into fall camp

Michigan v Notre Dame

Wednesday, Brian Kelly confirmed what just about every Notre Dame football fan already knew: The quarterback battle between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire will head into fall camp.

“They’ll continue to compete into August. There’s no question,” Kelly said.

What that means remains to be seen.

For Zaire, it’s the status quo. After all, Kelly said the same thing last spring, telling anybody who’d listen that Zaire was giving Golson a true run for his money. (It didn’t result in the shackles being taken off Zaire until late-November.)

For Golson, it’s not quite as simple. With his transfer options wide open after he earns his diploma in May, Golson can play next season for anybody. Kelly’s announcement makes any decision to depart a very complicated gamble.

There’s no team where Golson will go that has better weapons. There’s no offense he knows better. And there’s no group of players where he’ll feel more comfortable.

Ultimately, Kelly and the offensive staff understand that. And they also know that after living and dying with Golson in 2014, they’ll need both of their quarterbacks to push each other, making the turnovers and mistakes that plagued Golson’s game dealbreakers.

“I think that’s healthy competition. They’re both trying to get better and working to get better in the areas we’ve asked them to focus on,” Kelly said on Wednesday. “I can’t see where that’s not healthy and it will continue to work to get us better as a football team because they’re getting better every day.”

But just because the winner won’t be named until fall camp, doesn’t mean the competition won’t continue. On Saturday, the Irish will go live—quarterbacks included. It’s the type of scenario that wasn’t possible in years’ past, when the Irish usually had a starting quarterback but an unproven backup.

That’s not the case heading into 2015. If all goes according to plan, the Irish will enter camp with two starting-caliber quarterbacks.

And if that happens, Kelly can consider this spring a success, even without naming his starter.