Notre Dame football: Schmidt a perfect fit at ND

Too small, too slow? Maybe, but Schmidt filling big role

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND

While the end of last week’s Notre Dame-USC football game unfolded, Bruce Rollinson sat in a comfy chair in his southern California home and basked in the memories of one of his former players.

The head football coach at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., has a pipeline to his alma mater, Southern Cal. But the guy he’s got playing for Notre Dame, former walk-on Joe Schmidt, was the one who made an impact last Saturday.

Generally considered too small (6-foot, 230 pounds) and too slow by college football standards, Schmidt, a junior, was a longshot to find his way onto the field as an inside linebacker at Notre Dame.

Special teams? Maybe. Mop-up duty? Possibly. But heat-of-the-battle, game-on-the-line playing time? Hardly.

When Jarrett Grace was lost for the season with a broken leg in Texas against Arizona State, Schmidt got his number called as the next man in. He had a tackle against the Sun Devils, but made his mark against the Trojans.

Just over a minute to play. Southern Cal had the ball third-and-eight on the Irish 41, trailing by 4. Cody Kessler dropped back, saw tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick open momentarily and uncorked a pass. Schmidt timed his hit perfectly and separated Cope-Fitzpatrick from the ball.

Schmidt’s hit was critical in preserving the victory.

“(Cornerback) Devin (Butler) got fished out of the dig route twice late in the game on the last drive,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “They hit (receiver Nelson) Agholor on the dig. Devin got fished. They came back to it again with the tight end, and Joe saw it coming, to the tight end, and came back out of his front side curl and broke on the ball.”

“I was going over (toward the receiver) and I saw (Kessler) looking left,” Schmidt said, describing the critical play. “It was kinda like divine. Something told me to look left and I looked left. At first, I was going to pick it off. I realized (Cope-Fitzpatrick) was coming a lot faster. The receiver was kind of on me. I wasn’t going for the hit. I was going for the ball. As soon as I hit the guy, I knew the ball was coming out. I got pretty pumped up after that.

“(Injured linebacker) Dan Spond was going absolutely ballistic. (Fellow inside linebacker Dan) Fox was going crazy. (Tight end) Troy (Niklas) almost killed me.

“There was a lot of euphoria. I was so excited, I couldn’t even breathe.”

That same feeling filtered all the way to Rollinson’s chair.

“I attended USC, I played there, and I sent a lot of my players there, but I’m always rootin’ for my guys,” Rollinson said. “Saturday night, watching the (Notre Dame-Southern Cal) game, late in the fourth quarter, I turned to my wife and said, ‘Joseph Schmidt just won the football game.’

“Two weeks ago, he was (visiting during ND’s bye week) on our sidelines at Anaheim Stadium when we played our rival Servite. He was working our locker room. There he was, winning that football game.”

Baptism by fire

This was the same Joe Schmidt — Joseph, to his high school coach — who called the defensive signals at Mater Dei since he was a sophomore. That’s something that normally doesn’t happen at a big-time, nationally-renowned program.

That’s not to say there weren’t growing pains.

“He started as a 10th grader against our rival Servite,” Rollinson said. “He made the calls in the defensive huddle.

“It was like he couldn’t see the sidelines; he was getting the calls in late. I told him, ‘If I have to stand here naked (to signal in the plays), you’re going to get the calls in faster.’

“At halftime, he had this big smile on his face, like always, and said, ‘No big deal. We’ll get it done.’

“He always did.”

That vision of Rollinson nude was enough to convince Schmidt to get the job done.

“Injuries happened,” Schmidt said. “I went in the game against our biggest rival. NFL Network doing a huge special. There were 15,000 fans. I’m making all the calls because I’m an inside linebacker.

“A lot of the times, I’m not getting the calls from the sidelines, so I’m just trying to make

the calls for the guys who are looking to me for leadership.

“It was kind of baptism by fire. A couple plays happened (just like the end of the Southern Cal game). That’s just great coaching and great preparation.”

Since that baptism, Schmidt has been on a steady climb to get to where he’s at now, as the Irish prepare for their battle with Air Force Saturday.

Besides being used on several special team assignments, Schmidt’s primary role now is as the lone linebacker when extra defensive backs are used in passing situations. The next two weeks his role may be tweaked a bit since Notre Dame will be facing Air Force and Navy, two offenses based on the option with passing at a minimum.

Schmidt has come a long way since turning down scholarship opportunities at Arizona, Cincinnati, Air Force, Villanova and Penn, to come to Notre Dame without a scholarship.

Dream realized

Last summer, Schmidt had a close encounter with Kelly on which he wasn’t counting.

“Normally, you don’t get called into Coach’s office, so I was a little worried,” Schmidt said. “Coach told me I got a scholarship, which was an unbelievable dream-come-true moment for me.

“I called my dad. It was an unbelievable conversation to tell the guy who was paying for your school, you don’t have to do that anymore.

“It’s 5 o’clock in the morning (West Coast time), (my dad’s) completely bewildered when the phone rings. He’s like, ‘What do you want, Joe?’ I said, ‘How do you feel about saving a couple hundred thousand dollars over the next few years?’ He said, ‘That’s great. How do I do that?’ He wasn’t suspecting anything. I said, ‘They’ve got these things called scholarships.’ My mom and dad were both crying. They were thrilled.”

“It’s always measuring the 85 (scholarship limit),” Kelly said. “(Schmidt) helps the group. He helps the football team. We saw that the other night. He was worthy of one of our 85 scholarships.

“From a character standpoint, the team was excited to see Joe Schmidt on scholarship as well. So that’s measured as well in offering a scholarship to a walk-on. Because they, too, trust in Joe and believed in him. So all those go into making that kind of decision.”

“I remember I was just getting to school in the morning when my phone rang,” said Rollinson. “I saw it was Joseph Schmidt. It was one of those, ‘Uh oh, what’s this about?’ feelings; one of those calls you get in the middle of the night.

“Joseph said he had just gotten out of a meeting and they had given him a scholarship. It was very emotional. There was a silence for a while. I took about 15 swallows. I told him, ‘Now you have to work that much harder. Don’t relax. Prove you’re worthy.’”

A statement

That was the ultimate statement to all the doubters who said Schmidt just didn’t have the physical stature to make such a significant impact.

“That’s motivation,” Schmidt said of the doubters. “A lot of people are going to throw those obstacles in your path; tell you you can’t do something; I don’t think that’s true in anything. As long as you’re working hard, doing the right things, anything is possible.

“I just use that as fuel to the fire. That helps me work hard in the offseason and do everything I can to go in there and know exactly what I have to do on every play.”

“(Schmidt is) mistake-free; smart,” said Kelly. “He knew his role and how to do his job. We’d like him bigger, faster; we’d like him stronger. But we knew putting Joe Schmidt in the game, he was not going to get us beat. That’s the mark of the next man in. He continuously worked on getting stronger and getting faster. But at the same time he was getting smarter as a football player.”

“‘I have always been a believer that you only have so many opportunities to fulfill a dream,” Rollinson said. “If you don’t follow that dream, will you regret it?’

“Joseph is as Catholic as the day is long. He would blend right in with that community.

“Coach (Mike) Denbrock and coach (Brian) Kelly didn’t offer any hope when they came to campus (to talk with Schmidt in the recruiting process). They told Joseph, ‘We will give you an opportunity. That’s all we’re offering. It will be a tough uphill battle.’”

Before this season, Schmidt didn’t play at all his freshman season, then collected six special-teams tackles in the last 10 games of Notre Dame’s run to the BCS National Championship Game. This season he has nine tackles, but it’s a number that will likely skyrocket with his new role.

“The preparation hasn’t been any different,” Schmidt said. “I just reverted back to training. I wasn’t thinking: This is Arizona State; or this is USC. I just played the play, did my assignment and tried to help the defense however I could. I wasn’t thinking about the situation or the pressure.”

Through experience, Rollinson has no doubts whatsoever that the Notre Dame inside linebacker spot is in good hands, even if Schmidt’s not the biggest or fastest to play the position.

“Joseph always had a really good instinctive ability to be able to see the whole picture,” the coach said. “He had massive film study. He knew formations. He knew everyone’s assignments.

“He knows his opponent; very assignment savvy. He always seems to be in the right place at the right time.”

“My advice to him (about the new role) was: ‘Don’t change anything; do what you do. Pin your ears back and go for it.

“I think it was important that he played a lot (against Arizona State). You can’t substitute game experience. Playing as much as he has (last year and this year) on special teams set the stage for him. He begged to be on special teams with us, but we always had so many players we didn’t need him there.”

If the Irish defense is going to maintain the edge it has developed in the last two victories, Schmidt will be a key component in the equation.

Too small? Maybe. Too slow? Possibly.

But, without doubt, a perfect fit.

ALesar@SBTinfo.com

574-235-6318

Notre Dame's Joe Schmidt, left, and George Atkinson III look on during the singing of the Alma Mater following the 14-10 Notre Dame victory on Saturday, October 19, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN via FTP