Football now in high definition for LB Grace

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Reality set in quickly.

Early in Notre Dame’s win over Temple last week, the three-man rotation at inside linebacker beckoned Jarrett Grace into the football game.

The memory is still crystal clear. This was Grace’s time to shine under the bright lights. After being concealed in the shadow of Manti Te’o for the last two years, the time had finally come for the 6-foot-3, 252-pound junior (with two years of eligibility after this season).

His vantage point was ... up close and personal, to say the least.

“(Playing regularly) is different than watching (the game action) on film,” said Grace. “You see the (opposing offensive lineman). You see the sweat on his brow. It’s a lot more high-definition out there.”

Even the biggest big-screen TV can’t beat that.

“It’s fun,” Grace said. “That’s the key word — it’s fun.”

While seeing predominantly special teams play in all 13 games last season, Grace accumulated 12 tackles.

Now, it’s a lot different.

It’s even better when that first opportunity goes pretty well. Grace, who shared the two inside linebacker positions with Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese, came through like a veteran. He was third on the team in tackles with seven. Fox (10 tackles) and Calabrese (9) were ahead of him.

“(Grace) played well,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “There are a lot of things within the Temple offense that put the (middle) linebacker ... he’s always in double-jeopardy, if you will, with some of the pass reads. It’s a tough position to play, but he did a very nice job for us.”

That double-jeopardy was perpetuated by the regular doses of play-action in the passing game. Quarterback Connor Reilly would first fake a hand-off to a running back, then look for a receiver.

“We had some conflicts, trying to defend the run and the pass at the same time,” Grace said. “They’d be running play-action in front of you while having guys running pass routes behind you. It’s kinda hard. The quarterback ran a lot. ‘What should I do here? Should I cover the pass or should I hurry up and rally to the run?’

“We had a lot of those conflicts. We had enough balance there that we contained him enough. He got loose a little bit, but we did the job.”

That confusion won’t be lost on Michigan on Saturday night. It’s a safe bet the Wolverines, with their offense predicated on power, will incorporate some play-action to keep the Irish linebackers guessing.

For the most part, the Michigan offense is one with which the Irish defense — and linebackers, in particular — may match up well.

“We’re built that way,” said Kelly. “We’re 250 (pounds) at middle linebacker, we’re not 225. We’re 250 at the drop (linebacker, Ben Councell) and 250 at the cat (Prince Shembo or Ishaq Williams). We’re a bigger, physical football team. We prefer that kind of matchup.

“That doesn’t mean it’s going to be easier. You look at our matchup against Stanford. You look at it even against Pittsburgh last year. Those teams are big and physical. We’re built for those physical teams.

“We played Oklahoma last year when they spread it out and went no-back. We played very well. We can adapt, but we are structured to play that (physical) style of football. We’re certainly in a position where we don’t feel we go into this week and feel like we’re undermanned.”

Grace embraces the impending challenge with confidence and a smile.

“From an inside linebacker’s standpoint, (playing an offense based on power) is exciting,” Grace said. “We like running downhill. We like physical play. We like when teams run the ball. Temple didn’t do that very much (29 rushes for 134 net yards).

“It’s a different mindset. Michigan is powerful. They’ve got some big boys up front. They’ve got that fullback (Joe Kerridge, 6-0, 238). They run that physical style of play.

“It makes it easier mentally. But still, it’s a great challenge.”

Besides being a regular in the rotation while Notre Dame is in its base defense, Grace was brought in as part of the nickel package in a passing situation.

“(Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco) trusts me that I’ll be able to have decent speed and to understand the situation,” Grace said. “I have to cover my man, know where the (first-down marker is). Through camp, I’d be on-body with (receivers).

“You have to have a different gear switched on.”

If Grace thought containing a wide-open Temple offense was challenging, wait ‘til he sees the talent from Michigan. Devin Gardner is a big-time quarterback. Running back Fitz Toussaint is quick and receiver Jeremy Gallon is legit.

Still, he had to start somewhere. Running out of Te’o’s shadow was better done against Temple.

“I thought I was assignment sound, for the most part,” Grace said. “That’s something I was trying to do in the first game: not mess up. I wouldn’t say that caused me to play hesitant, but I was trying to do my job and be one of 11.

“There were a lot of question marks (about the Temple offense). We really didn’t know exactly what they were going to do. We just tried to play really sound and stick to what we do as a defense.”

Just being back on the field gave the Cincinnati Colerain High grad flashbacks to how it used to be.

“(Finally playing regularly) was totally different (from last year),” Grace said. “It’s what you came here for. You were recruited to play linebacker and it’s finally exciting to have that come to fruition.

“There was a little anxiety, but Coach coaches that out of us. We’ve got ultimate confidence when we step onto the field. Once you get out there it’s like, ‘Wow, I’m playing ball again.’

“The first game of every season always gets you (with butterflies) a little bit. After that, it’s like, ‘Shoot, I’ve been doing this since I was 4 years old; just hunting the ballcarrier.’”

Just like watching on film.

But the picture quality was a whole lot better.

South Bend Tribune/JAMES BROSHER Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace (59) lays a hit on quarterback Tommy Rees during a football practice on Saturday, April 14, 2012, at Notre Dame.