The decimation of Notre Dame's linebacking corps was a story that grew with each passing loss in November 2014. The Irish defense was a MASH unit at almost every position, but linebacker in particular stood out, with true freshman Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini thrust into significant roles. Brian Van Gorder's group badly needed veteran experience outside of Jaylon Smith, and the absence of two linebackers was magnified.
Jarrett Grace and Joe Schmidt had very different routes to Notre Dame, but both find themselves in the same position heading into 2015 - looking to regain a prominent role at middle linebacker after painful injuries that sidelined them for months (or in Grace's case, over a year). What would have seemed impossible last November may now be true heading into the fall - linebacker may be Notre Dame's deepest defensive position group. Grace and Schmidt will both have to fight for snaps against a talented group of incoming freshman and sophomores that benefitted from their absence.
When Grace suits up against Texas, it will have been 701 days since the last game he played for Notre Dame. The player who was once hyped by Bob Diaco as a "werewolf" is now some kind of wolf/metal/human hybrid - after breaking his leg in four places in 2013, Grace had a rod inserted during his first surgery.
The recovery process has been tough for Grace, whose comeback was featured prominently in "Onward Notre Dame: New Beginnings". When he missed the entire 2014 season, many assumed his career was over, but now the 6'3, 253-pound linebacker is on track to return against Texas. Spring practice brought with it clearance for full contact, and Grace registered two tackles in the Blue-Gold game, and at the absolute least should contribute in special teams.
The competition will be intense at middle linebacker, with Grace competing with Schmidt and Morgan for playing time. But the Irish face several opponents with run-heavy schemes (Georgia Tech, Navy, and Boston College) that should play to Grace's size and run-stopping ability and be huge opportunities for the Ohio native. At this point anything Grace can contribute is a bonus, and his veteran leadership and determination should be a tremendous example for Te'Von Coney, Josh Barajas and the other young linebackers in the position group.
You can't isolate the impact of Joe Schmidt's injuries from the Oregon Trail-like collapse in health of the entire defense. (Side note: in this analogy I like picturing BVG destroying his keyboard after watching Jarron Jones, Joe Schmidt, Sheldon Day and Cody Riggs all coming down with cholera somewhere along the Platte River. This may be a future series.) But even Brian Kelly admitted that the staff likely "underestimated" the impact of losing Schmidt to a season-ending ankle injury Nov.1 at Navy.
While the "Rudy" comparisons will never end, it's time to start re-framing expectations for Joe Schmidt and retiring "former walk-on" as the first line in his resume. There is still a lingering perception of Schmidt as an undersized, less athletic linebacker getting by on some combination of toughness, intelligence, and determination. Larz did a great job debunking that myth here - yes, Joe Schmidt has those positive traits, but he also combines them with great athleticism and range to be an effective Mike linebacker.
Do you know who else began their careers as walk-ons? JJ Watt, Ziggy Ansah, Jordy Nelson, and Santana Moss. Maybe it took success and moving into the NFL for that to become a less defining piece of their careers, or
maybe probably because it's Notre Dame and he's a white linebacker that this is especially hard to kick, but the expectations for Joe Schmidt should be based on his impressive production last season instead of his recruiting ranking. If he makes a full recovery, there's no reason he can't take another decent step forward in 2015 from team MVP to all-conference caliber player this year, and that's a damn good career for any college player. The "boy, he's great for a walk-on" angle is a backhanded compliment for a player who was one of the best players on Notre Dame's defense in 2014.
The big question is not whether or not Schmidt has the ability to play at a high level, but if his rehab and recovery go well enough for him to return to or exceed to level he was performing at in 2014. If so, the defense gets its play-caller and leader back, and there's no reason the Irish couldn't improve from a No. 70 rankings in Rushing S&P+ to somewhere in the top 30-40 or better..
The Notre Dame defense that collapsed down the stretch last season has the potential for a dramatic turnaround if it can remain healthy, and Jarrett Grace and Joe Schmidt have the ability to make a huge difference. If both can contribute at a high level all signs point to a tougher defensive front and a close race for Irish comeback player of the year.