His long road back after a catastrophic injury has been well-discussed. Now Jarrett Grace gets to the fun part—finding his way back to the middle of the Irish defense.
The fifth-year linebacker looked primed to be the heir apparent to Manti Te’o entering 2013. But a shattered leg and Joe Schmidt’s ascent made that impossible. Now Grace will play a critical role in the Irish defense, regardless of if he’s on the field or off.
The Cincinnati product injected immediate enthusiasm into spring practice, his first work with the team after multiple surgeries and a grueling rehabilitation process. Now Grace is in the middle of a packed linebacker depth chart, with the veteran still working his way back to the new normal, running on a leg that should be attached to the Terminator, not a college linebacker.
When he takes the field against Texas, Grace will be proving so many wrong who thought his career ended that fateful evening against Arizona State in 2013. (And it very well should have.) But there’s more to accomplish for one of Notre Dame’s most impressive student-athletes.
Let’s dig in.
6’2.5″, 253 lbs.
Grad Student, No. 59, LB
Grace picked Notre Dame over Michigan, Ohio State, Michigan State, Alabama and Stanford, a victory for a coach who desperately needed a big-bodied athlete like Grace to man the interior of Bob Diaco’s 3-4 system.
Grace may not have been a true blue-chipper by recruiting analysts’ standards, but his offer list certainly was elite.
Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.
Sophomore Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, serving as Manti Te’o’s backup while anchoring Notre Dame’s special teams. He made 12 tackles, 10 on special teams, including eight on kickoff coverage.
Junior Season (2013): Played in the season’s first six games, leading the team in tackles at the time of his injury against Arizona State. Had split starting duties with Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese. Notre Dame’s Rockne Scholar Athlete.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
Last spring, Grace underwent another surgery to help his leg—swapping out a steel rod that wasn’t quite taking. That all but meant the 2014 season was a goner, even if the official word out of Brian Kelly was hopeful.
Still, give credit to the athletic training staff that Grace is able to complete this comeback. I hinted at their role in this recovery last season, and Grace has publicly talked about the support he’s received as well.
There’s no player you should root for more to come back from injury than Grace. The team’s Rockne scholar-athlete of the year in 2013, Grace has all the leadership traits you could ask for in a football player, and has immense respect in the team’s locker room, earned while waiting his turn to play behind Manti Te’o for two seasons.
If this was five years ago, I suspect Grace would already be facing a medical hardship waiver and his football career in South Bend would be over. But the team’s enhanced medical staff and willingness to go above and beyond for its student-athletes with cutting edge rehabilitation techniques gives Grace the best chance he could possibly ask for to return from this injury.
While a return for the season opener against Rice is the goal, giving Grace a full calendar year to return isn’t unreasonable. If that means getting him back for the stretch run, it’s better than most should have expected. Notre Dame has a good experience on their side in the return of Torii Hunter from a freak bone break. But even that came after a setback in recovery, necessitating a redshirt 2013 season.
Grace is a senior with two years of competition remaining. So while the timing for the injury is unfortunate, getting anything out of the linebacker this season would be a huge bonus for Grace and the Irish.
At this point, we just need to see how Grace looks when he’s back on the field. We’ve heard repeatedly from Brian Kelly how well Grace’s recovery is going, but at the same time we’ve also heard that there’s still work to be done before Grace is back to his full explosiveness.
It’s hard not to think of former Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich when you talk about Grace. Herzlich heroically returned from bone cancer in his leg and just recently signed a new two-year deal with the New York Giants.
Grace wasn’t the standout that Herzlich was when he got injured, but he had the potential to be that good. If Grace can fully recover and salvage an NFL career after some dark, dark days, it’d be a tremendous story and a credit to a very impressive kid.
Are you going to doubt Grace? Because I sure don’t want to. That being said, how he fits into the puzzle remains to be seen.
You have to assume Joe Schmidt returns to the middle of the Irish defense. He was the mental hub of the unit in 2014, and his departure all but coincided with the demise of the unit. Throw in a promising young linebacker in Nyles Morgan, and Grace is competing for playing time with two very good linebackers.
Setting aside Grace’s recovery—which is the ultimate barometer—where Notre Dame uses Jaylon Smith will likely dictate how much time Grace gets in packages. If Smith is shifting in and out and being utilized in the pass rush, Grace can play in the middle. And if Schmidt can cross-train at will, Grace and his size/reach advantage can hold ground at the mike spot.
Even if Grace plays a role similar to the one Cam McDaniel did as a senior captain, he’ll help the defense improve by just being in uniform and filling a leadership role. But if he’s healthy, Grace’s ceiling is so much higher than just spot duty, so here’s hoping that he gets some of the spoils that he richly deserves.
THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR