LB Joe Schmidt getting a grip on starting role for Notre Dame

AL LESAR
South Bend Tribune

It was just one play.

Over the course of the next few weeks, Joe Schmidt is going to be involved in hundreds of plays with the Notre Dame football team’s defense.

That’s what middle linebackers do. They’re the traffic cops of the unit, trying to limit the confusion and plug any holes.

But still, that one play in practice really bugged him.

As Irish quarterback Everett Golson dropped back to pass, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior read his eyes. He drifted to his left with the flow of the play and happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Only problem: Schmidt’s hands failed to show up with the rest of his body.

“I played (the pass) perfectly, and I was in perfect position to take (the interception) to the house (for a touchdown) and …,” Schmidt said. “I wish I could have that one back. I watched it slide right through my fingers. It’s a frustrating thing, man.”

Though the level of frustration won’t get any easier to manage, Schmidt’s not the kind of guy who will dwell on the past for too long.

In just a couple seasons, he has gone from a freshman walkon who never played, whose claim to fame was an award from the National Football Foundation’s College Football Hall of Fame for his performance on and off the field at Mater Dei High School in southern California, to a guy primed to make his first college start Aug. 30 against Rice.

A redshirt junior, Schmidt appeared in 10 games in 2012, primarily in a special teams role. Last season, he occasionally backed up Dan Fox, and then Jarrett Grace, at inside linebacker in Notre Dame’s 3-4 alignment. When Grace went down with a serious leg injury against Arizona State, Fox was back as the starter. Schmidt finished last year with 15 tackles and one pass break up.

Fox is gone. Grace has been cleared to run, but is hardly ready to take a hit.

That leaves Schmidt, who was awarded a scholarship before last season, as the key figure in a five-man battle on the depth chart.

“I don’t see it as pressure. I see it as an awesome opportunity,” said Schmidt. “I really try to embrace it every day.

“I try to bring what I can; a leadership role; get guys (lined up) in the right spot. I don’t view it as a pressure situation, I look at it as going after it.”

Besides Schmidt and Grace, whenever he’s ready, there are freshman Nyles Morgan, walkon sophomore Austin Larkin, and sophomore Michael Deeb.

“I’m seeing a lot more plays, so I’ve gotta make sure my body is prepared for that – which I believe that it is,” said Schmidt, who is undersized for the position. “I’ve always tried to do my best to help. I’d always talk with guys on the sidelines. I’m trying to bring along some of the younger players now.

“It’s my job (to teach the young linebackers), as a senior, as someone who has been around the program, it’s my job to bring along these younger players and make sure they can help us. We’re going to need everybody in some facet.”

Just think of the pickle the Irish would be in now if guys like Manti Te’o and Grace didn’t do the same for Schmidt.

“Me and Jarrett are really close,” Schmidt said. “We’re really supportive of each other. We talk a lot. That’s how we roll.”

On top of settling in as a prime component of the defense for the first time in his career, Schmidt has also had to scrap the concepts he learned in his first three years and commit to memory the teachings of new coordinator Brian VanGorder.

“This is an opportunity to bring what we learned in the spring…,” Schmidt said. “I, mentally, know what to do. It’s more about getting the reps now.

“Sometimes, you see something new. (Early in camp), you might be a step slow because you recognize what’s happening, but you haven’t seen it in six months. For the most part, we’re trying to eradicate that and start flying around to the ball every day.”

Intelligence and retention are the strong points of Schmidt’s game. A management-entrepreneurship major in the Mendoza College of Business, knowing where to be and when to be there is the easy part.

Keeping the ball from sliding through his fingers is the challenge.

Notre Dame linebackers Joe Schmidt (38) and Romeo Okwara, right, stack up USC running back Javorius Allen (37) in the 2013 game at Notre Dame.