Attitude trumps size for Notre Dame LB Joe Schmidt

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Mind over matter has its place.

Attitude is everything, so to speak.

“Prey or predator” is football boiled down to its basics.

It’s the only way a guy who doesn’t fit the prototype can survive as a linebacker at Notre Dame.

Senior inside linebacker Joe Schmidt doesn’t have the strength and power of Manti Te’o, or the speed of Jaylon Smith. At 6-foot and 235 pounds, intensity, drive and intelligence have taken the former walk-on farther than just about anyone would have predicted three years ago.

“We felt like with player development, that Joe had a chance to be successful here at Notre Dame, or we would not have invited him into the program as a walk-on, and a lot of that has to do with Joe, as well,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “He’s put in his time. He’s developed physically and mentally and we’ve done a really good job of bringing him along. Both parties working together have gotten him to this point.”

Schmidt will be one of the players to watch closely Saturday when Notre Dame takes on Stanford. Though a couple inches shorter and 10-20 pounds lighter than the ideal inside linebacker, Schmidt has fared well this season with 30 tackles (one behind team-leader Smith), an interception and a forced fumble.

But that was against four teams that like to spread their offense and throw the ball around. Stanford has the sort of attack that would prefer to run over a defense, rather than around it.

It’s a different sort of a challenge this week for Schmidt. Is he ready?

“I love (going against a power team),” Schmidt said. “That’s ball. That’s old-school, get in a fight. Downhill, that’s a linebacker’s game. It’s a fight in the trenches and I love that.

“I think it’s a mindset. It’s something we like to do.

“I can’t wait to play them. (Stanford) is an amazing challenge for a linebacker; any linebacker.”

Schmidt isn’t the first mold-breaker to play inside linebacker for the Irish. Not that long ago (2002-05), Brandon Hoyte (5-11, 235) had a pretty good run.

A spot starter until his fifth year when he was a regular and team captain, Hoyte collected 297 tackles, 12 sacks and 36 tackles for loss in 49 games (27 starts). During that final season, he led the team with 92 tackles and 16.5 tackles for loss.

Almost a decade later, Hoyte remembers there was no secret to his success.

“A lot of times, (playing linebacker) is a matter of a mindset,” Hoyte said. “My viewpoint was, ‘I’m giving a lot of hits at linebacker.’ You have to have that certain mentality that there’s a certain level of toughness. You’ve gotta be tough to play that position.

“If you have that toughness, from a size perspective, you have the advantage with leverage and speed. You bring that toughness factor and the big guys fall a little harder.”

From Kelly on down through a dubious media, there have been concerns about how Schmidt might hold up when a team amps up the power game.

“I understand what my strengths and what my weaknesses are,” Schmidt said. “I’m very self-aware. I’m really not concerned with what anyone else thinks my weaknesses are. I know how to play my game.

“There’s always work to be done; always polishing. There’s a checklist of things I go out to practice with to work on. I understand I need to get better in certain areas.”

Hoyte heard those same concerns – and never flinched.

“I liked playing teams that ran the ball and made the games a little more physical,” Hoyte said. “It’s more based on your strengths and weaknesses than your size and measurables. At 5-11, I’d love to play running teams. This game against Stanford is going to be awesome this weekend.

“(Notre Dame has) the talent. It’s not a question of: Are we talented enough to beat Stanford? Yes, we are. When you have a guy like Jaylon playing alongside you, you know you have another playmaker. You do what you have to do, but you’ve got a guy who can make plays next to you.

“Those (Stanford) guys are going to play a very physical game, because that’s how Stanford plays. And, quite frankly, that’s how (this Notre Dame defense) plays. The coaches have done a great job with putting the guys in the right position.”

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder might be the mastermind drawing up the blueprints, but it’s Schmidt who is one of the dominant voices on the field making sure everyone is where they’re supposed to be.

That’s why it’s so difficult for him to be off the field for any significant time. Freshman Nyles Morgan (6-1, 230) might be a relief option to make sure the physical nature of the game doesn’t wear Schmidt down, but losing that leadership and direction – even for a few snaps – could be damaging.

“I tried to get in coach VanGorder’s pocket early,” Schmidt said. “Ask questions. I still do that every day. I want to be able to think just like he thinks. I’m trying to get in his head. That’s what my role is.

“I don’t think anyone is indispensable. I need the team more than the team needs me.

“It’s important to realize that anyone at any time can be replaced. With that being said, I try to do everything I can when I’m in there to make sure our defense is in the right areas and guys are in the right place making plays.”

Schmidt, like Hoyte, was able to make an impact because he willed it to happen. While the noise on the periphery would call size a handicap, those internal voices wouldn’t allow room for any doubt.

That’s the advice Hoyte would give to the next undersized young linebacker who steps on the field.

“When you step on campus as a freshman, you’ve either got it or you don’t,” Hoyte said. “It’s gotta be in you. You’ve gotta want to hit. You’ve gotta want to make plays. Then, put yourself in the best environment to make that happen.

“His mindset should not be, ‘How am I going to survive as a smaller guy?’ His mindset should be, ‘I hope these offensive players are ready to survive against me.’

“At the end of the day, you’re either prey or you’re predator. Football’s a lot like life, you’re either eating or you’re not. There has to be a certain level of intensity that, when you get out on the field, I’m not worried about being 5-11, (the offensive players) should be worried about me tackling them.”

That mental approach can be a powerful tool.

In that case, size is never a factor.

Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt, left, puts pressure on Syracuse quarterback Terrel Hunt during the Notre Dame-Syracuse game. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)