Notre Dame football: Grace already a leader

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

It had long stopped being about walking in Manti Te’o’s legacy and was suddenly rather a matter of Jarrett Grace not being able to get out of his own way.

Then again, his two-year apprenticeship behind the former consensus Notre Dame All-America linebacker and 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up didn’t lend itself to much practical experience. The 6-foot-3, 253-pound Irish junior’s career tackle total from the linebacker position, once you stripped away the special teams plays, was a grand total of two coming into this season.

“I don’t want to say I was necessarily robotic,” Grace assessed of his first steps into extended playing time.

Nerves, though, initially canceled out instincts. At times in the past month, Grace played like he was reading from a textbook. The game didn’t slow down, as the cliché dictates. He did.

And then came the epiphany and a surge into the starting lineup.

“I’ve been doing this since I’ve been 4 years old,” Grace said of playing linebacker. “There’s no need for me to be anxious or overstressed out there. I’m going to prepare and do the things the right way, and come game day, I’m just going to play.”

Grace’s presence had a calming and cohesive effect on the rest of the Irish defense last Saturday in a 17-13 subduing of Michigan State that produced the Te’o-less unit’s best bottom line of the season — 254 total yards. yielded.

Grace led the way with eight tackles in his first collegiate start and now leads the team with 28.

Admittedly, Saturday’s offensive challenge, No. 14 Oklahoma (3-0), will present a more thorough test in determining whether the Irish defense is finally starting to trend toward last year’s numbers, with ND finishing seventh nationally in total defense.

The Sooners piled up 607 yards on Tulsa in their most recent game, on Sept. 14, and are the first top-60 offense the Irish will face this season. Oklahoma is 24th in total offense.

Saturday will also potentially be a watershed game for Oklahoma’s defense, which, statistically, looks like it was plucked from the early years of head coach Bob Stoops’ reign in Norman. The Sooners are 20th in total defense and 18th against the run.

From 2000, Stoops’ second year at OU, until 2009, only once did the Sooners stray from being in the top 26 nationally in both categories. Starting in 2010, though, defense became Oklahoma’s soft spot.

The Sooners bottomed out last year at 64th in total defense and 89th against the run, though they were 15th and 46th, respectively, when Notre Dame came into Norman last October and became only the second non-conference team in the Stoops Era (1999-present) to walk out with a victory.

In the offseason, Stoops scrapped his old 4-3 scheme and installed a 3-3-5 look.

Last year’s 30-13 Irish victory was the game that legitimized ND as a national title contender, and largely because of what it did on defense.

In that game, the Irish held the Sooners to 15 net rushing yards, OU’s lowest rushing total in a home game in 10 years and the seventh-fewest rushing yards in Oklahoma history. The longest Sooner run was seven yards.

The 13 points the Irish defense limited Oklahoma to tied for the second-fewest points scored by the Sooners in a home game during the Stoops Era.

Despite the frustrations by ND’s unforgiving following over lack of offensive pyrotechnics last week against the nation’s No. 1 defense, if the Irish are going to surge back into the BCS picture, the defense will likely lead the way.

It’s also the clearest indicator of whether the Irish can sustain long-term success that last year’s 12-1 record and No. 4 final ranking hinted at.

Not that the offense couldn’t use tweaking.

Grace’s presence in the starting lineup was one of several tweaks ND head coach Brian Kelly and coordinator Bob Diaco made to a defense that cracked when it was supposed to bend early in 2013, even against Temple.

The Irish started the season with fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese playing together inside. In 2012, they shared the weakside linebacker spot next to Te’o, but Kelly elected to move Fox into the middle linebacker spot and let Grace rotate in.

“We always err toward the senior, first and foremost,” Kelly said, “and Dan has played a lot of football for us.”

Fox will still play a lot of football, but more of it will come at weakside linebacker now that Grace is ascending.

The next step for Grace himself are the leadership and communication pieces, especially helping the talented parts fit together and being the strong voice to stir team chemistry.

“Sometimes, you feel like the new guy,” Grace said, “but you recognize, ‘I have just as much invested in this team as these guys do.’ We all have the same goal. We want to win. So if I’m going to do something that’s going to help the team win, I better do it. So it’s just overcoming that obstacle.”

Tom Bolden, Grace’s head coach back at Cincinnati public school power Colerain, doesn’t see it being an obstacle for long.

“That’s who he is,” Bolden said. “A leader. He’s your quarterback on defense. And that goes back to how intelligent Jarrett is and how well he studies the film — and he’s football smart, too.

“When you’re a defensive player, if the guy next to you can get you into the right spot with the right check or whatever, you’re going to play faster. And that builds confidence throughout the defense.”

Sitting behind Te’o never bothered Grace. Nor did it factor in for him during the recruiting process.

“Actually, I remember sitting on my living room floor watching him commit to Notre Dame,” said Grace, two recruiting classes behind Te’o, a five-star recruit and the first high school Butkus Award winner. “Obviously, I didn’t know much about him then, but I remember seeing that moment.

“And then, as I started the process myself, I knew he was a tremendous player, and that’s something I looked toward and went, ‘OK, if I go here, I’m going to have this great mentor for how many years he’s there.’ So that’s something that excited me as well, just knowing there’s great players on this team. And if I can learn from them, maybe I can develop my skill and even be one of those players.”

Everything pointed to that happening, except Grace’s recruiting ranking.

He was a standout linebacker from the time he entered Colerain’s impressive feeder system and an even brighter star in the classroom.

“People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but he never had a B in his life,” Bolden said of the 4.0 student, who originally came to ND to be a cardiologist but has since gravitated to the business school.

“That’s on any progress report, any report card, anything. The only time there was ever an issue was during his sophomore year. He took some kind of advanced placement test, and it didn’t turn out as well as his mom had hoped. So she made him sit out a few days of football practice.

“He’s the All-American kid. He’s big. He’s good-looking. He’s athletic. He’s intelligent. He volunteered at Masses at different (Catholic) parishes here in the community. He would speak to youth groups about making right choices. It’s almost like he’s too good to be true.”

And the fear was one of Cincinnati’s Catholic school prep powers would lure him away.

But Grace’s grandpa was once a decorated athlete at Colerain, as were his uncles, who included former University of Michigan and Cincinnati Bengal tight end Eric Kattus.

“That feeling of community and wanting to be a Cardinal was too much to pull him away,” Bolden said.

The recruiting process started all over again, shortly after Grace arrived at Colerain,, when Kelly — then at the University of Cincinnati — extended a scholarship offer. A handful of Big Ten powers, Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Arizona and Stanford, among others, got involved, but Grace was still mostly regarded as a three-star prospect, and didn’t make Rivals.com’s list of the top 250 players.

Recruiting analyst Tom Lemming was one of the few who pushed him to a four-star ranking.

“I think the reason he wasn’t ranked higher is because people thought he’d grow out of being a middle linebacker, that he was too tall and that he’d end up at outside linebacker or defensive end,” Lemming said. “And it was hard to project how good he’d be at those positions.

“But I really liked him, and thought if a team did keep him at inside linebacker, he could have five-star potential. I’m not surprised that Brian Kelly sees him in that light, too.”

And Kelly’s first impression turned out to be his lasting one as well.

“I knew not only was he going to be a great player, but he was going to be a leader,” Kelly said. “He's lived up to that. Even though he was behind our best leader in our program, and that has a tendency, obviously, to overshadow you, he led in community service. He led in fellowship. Now he's starting to become more vocal as a football player as well. He'll continue to develop in that manner as well.

“If you were to ask Manti today, he would probably say, ‘That's my guy, and I'm not surprised that he's having success.’”

Linebacker Jarrett Grace has worked into a starting role on Notre Dame's defense. SBT Photo/JAMES BROSHER