Surgery for Notre Dame linebacker Grace raises questions

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The most unsettled position on the Notre Dame football team got a little bit shakier this weekend.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly, though, is hoping the latest surgical procedure performed on senior-to-be Jarrett Grace will be the start of some clarity.

Grace, the No. 1 candidate to start at middle linebacker if healthy, hasn’t played or practiced since breaking his right leg in four places on Oct. 5 at Arlington, Texas, in a 37-34 victory over Arizona State. He underwent surgery shortly afterward. A second procedure, performed Friday by team surgeon Dr. Brian Ratigan, included inserting a rod for stability.

If all goes well, Grace would be on track to compete for the starting job this fall, Kelly said that determination will be made six weeks from now after another round of X-rays and scans.

“Remember, he had four breaks there,” Kelly said Saturday after practice. “So the surgery went very well. I just talked to Brian Ratigan. All four of those (breaks) came together very well. If (Ratigan) went in there and there was instability in the four breaks, I think there would have been some concern as to whether he could make it back in the fall. But the indication is there has been some great growth in there.”

Former walk-on Joe Schmidt, a senior-to-be, has been taking the No. 1 reps this spring, backed up by sophomore-to-be Michael Deeb and surging walk-on Austin Larkin. One of the top high school linebacker prospects in the country, Nyles Morgan of Crete, Ill., joins the Irish roster in June.

All of them, including Morgan — who has visited practice — are learning a new scheme brought in by first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.

The Irish have even experimented with standout sophomore outside linebacker Jaylon Smith in the middle of the defense in certain packages.

Smith’s only previous middle linebacker experience came during his senior season at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Bishop Luers, when an injury prompted him to move inside late in the team’s run to the Class 2-A state championship in 2012. He studied tapes of then-ND line-backer Manti Te’o to prepare.

Grace’s three starts at the position in 2013 represent the only ones anyone on the current roster has made at middle linebacker while at ND. The 6-foot-3, 253-pounder from Cincinnati had overtaken Dan Fox to become the starter at the time of his injury.

Fox, when reinserted in the starting lineup, played some of the best football of his career and ended up as ND’s leading tackler with 95. He has since exhausted his eligibility.

Schmidt, at 6-1 and 230, has been a special teams stalwart and played some big downs at linebacker situationally in 2013 after Grace’s injury. He had 15 tackles overall. VanGorder loves his savvy, but can he be an every-down player?

“I think everything is on the table at that position,” Kelly said. “Joe Schmidt is a very smart player at that position. He’s doing the things that we want him to do. Mike (Deeb) is learning. I think it’s really too early to tell at that position.

“I think to use this spring to determine who the middle linebacker is, with a lot of new things going in, is not something that we’re concerned with at this point. I think it’s going to take time for it to round itself out, so that includes dipping into freshmen who will come in the fall as well. I think this is a question that’s not going to be answered until we move ourselves through the preseason.”

Walking the walk

Austin Larkin was set to take a scholarship offer to FCS power Coastal Carolina in February of 2013, but had a change of heart and walked on at Notre Dame.

That heart and some pretty good talent has the son of former Irish linebacker Mike Larkin opening eyes in spring practice. The 6-3, 240-pounder is challenging fellow sophomore-to-be Michael Deeb for the No. 2 reps this spring at middle linebacker.

“Really pleased with him,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that’s going to contribute here. I don’t know that he’s ready right now to contribute, but he could be a special teams player for us next year. He’s a good football player.”

So was Mike Larkin, who played for coach Gerry Faust at both Cincinnati Moeller High and then at ND, but injuries ravaged all but a standout sophomore season for the former outside linebacker.

Austin grew up in San Ramon, Calif., and played his high school ball at Doughtery Valley High School.

Austin’s uncles are Barry Larkin, the Cincinnati Reds’ Hall of Fame shortstop, and Byron Larkin, who ended his standout basketball career at Xavier as the school’s all-time leading scorer.

Talking the talk

Kelly got the obligatory Northwestern (CAPA) union question Saturday and responded as follows when asked how he’d feel if one of his players wanted to talk union:

“I think we would respect anything that our players would want to do relative to their creativity, their ability to want to talk about things of that nature,” he said. “I think that’s one of the great things about being in a university setting. You’re never going to squash or hold students back from that kind of dialogue. Right?

“But, I think, as it relates to me personally, I’m a teacher, I’m an educator. I’m more interested in relationships based on player-coach than employee.

“As much as we want to be in an atmosphere where we create a creative learning environment, I also want to be individually in a place where I’m an educator and a teacher. Wherever that meets is kind of where I stand on it. I think there’s a long way before we have to get to that point where a decision needs to be made.

“I’m not at a point where I’m going to meet with our football team and discuss the pluses and minuses of putting a union together, I can say that.”

Personnel points

• After safety Nicky Baratti underwent two shoulder surgeries in less than a year’s time, Kelly’s first inclination was to limit him the junior-to-be somewhat during spring practice.

But Baratti, who missed all of 2013 because of the second surgery, has since graduated to full contact and will likely challenge for a spot in the two-deeps at a very deep position group.

“Much of what we expected in Nicky in terms of his athleticism is what we’re seeing,” Kelly said. “He’s fully engaged and competing and just learning the system, like everybody else, but (he’s a) good, tough kid, athletic kid and getting back in the swing of things.”

• Kelly had hoped to start sifting through options in the return game this week, but Mother Nature limited how much separation he was able to make in terms of punt returners and kickoff returners.

“All we did was work off the JUGS (machine),” Kelly said. “We can’t get much work, because we didn’t get outside. We’re going to try to get out Monday morning and, hopefully, we’ll get some more work in.

“So we’ve been limited to just the drill work and catching the ball. It’s hard to tell coming off the JUGS. We’re still just a collection of guys right now.”

• Cormerback Devin Butler finally got some work Saturday this spring, performing in non-contact drills, though not in full pads. The sophomore-to-be is being held out of contact because of offseason shoulder surgery.

• So thin has the offensive line become because of injuries that the No. 2 offense performed their 11-on-none drills with only 10 players, leaving the left guard spot vacant.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace underwent a second surgery Friday on his right leg, which he broke in four places Oct. 5 against Arizona State. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)