Time for Notre Dame's Schmidt to state his case

South Bend Tribune

A hard reset with defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder could benefit Joe Schmidt.

Schmidt’s story as a former walk-on will always follow him, but a new coach and an evolving defense leveled the playing field for the entire linebacking corps. Outside of returning freshman phenom Jaylon Smith, little seems certain in playing time and position.

If last week’s opening of spring practice indicated anything, it’s that Schmidt will have as great a shot as any of the linebackers to find meaningful playing time in the fall. The senior-to-be inside linebacker saw reps as the starting middle linebacker in a 4-3 alignment during the 30-minute media viewing session of the March 3 practice.

Sure, Jarrett Grace’s recovery from a broken leg and signee Nyles Morgan’s arrival will challenge Schmidt in the fall. Even fifth-year senior Kendall Moore, who lined up as a starting linebacker next to Schmidt on Monday, could also prove to be an obstacle when all the pieces are sorted. But the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Schmidt, who became a scholarship player last summer, hopes to prove how he measures up this spring.

“We’re all starting at the same point,” Schmidt said after practice Monday. “We have to try to learn and learn fast. It’s definitely a huge opportunity, an awesome opportunity. I’m looking forward to it.”

Schmidt refused to let members of the media pry significance out of his first reps with the starting unit. After all, he’s still the same person that saw limited action as a junior last season while recording 15 tackles.

“It’s just an opportunity to get some reps and work,” Schmidt said. “It’s obviously exciting to get out there and run around and make some plays. I’m really just looking at it as it’s day one. We really have a lot of work to do. I’m excited about it.”

As the defense evolves from Bob Diaco’s scheme to VanGorder’s philosophies, Schmidt will try to show his skillset and find out if it matches with one of the available roles in the new unit.

“I’d like to think I can be a well-rounded player,” he said. “I want to be able to play in all scenarios. I’m trying to work on that right now and see how I can help the team.”

With the departures of Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese and Prince Shembo following last season, the linebacker unit has plenty of snaps to replace. In addition to Grace, Morgan and Moore, redshirt freshmen Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph combine to round out a talented but inexperienced group.

“We have a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things,” Schmidt said. “We’re really athletic across the board. There are a lot of guys that can play a variety of positions, so I think that’s definitely a strength of ours. It’s something that we can really build on this spring with all those reps we have.”

Many of the specifics of VanGorder’s plan have been kept under wraps by him and head coach Brian Kelly. Schmidt stayed in line with avoiding the specifics when asked to describe the differences between inside linebackers in the new and old defense.

“As the inside linebacker, you’re still going to be one of the leaders of the defense,” Schmidt said. “I don’t think that changes at all. We’re doing a lot of the same things, but some things have changed as well. For the most part, the inside linebacker has to drive it a little bit. That’s something we’re working on right now.”

He doesn’t have to explain the complexities publicly, but Schmidt will need to have a handle on them if he wants to see the field in the fall. Being able to take so many reps from now until the April 12 Blue-Gold Game puts Schmidt ahead of some of his competition. In less than six months, it will be known if Schmidt took advantage of the opportunity.

“I want to have a full grasp of what we’re trying to do in terms of our defensive scheme now,” Schmidt said. “I want to be able to make all the checks and know where everybody else goes so I can help them fix and adjust during the game. I definitely have a lot of individual goals that I want to make sure that I get done by April 12. There’s a lot of time between now and a then — a lot of practices until then.” 574-235-6214 Twitter: @TJamesNDI

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 over USC Oct. 19, 2013, at Notre Dame Stadium. SBT photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN