Notre Dame's Joe Schmidt advances beyond sentimental journey

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — If it all had sort of plateaued and faded after Joe Schmidt called his father at 5:30 in the morn-ing 14½ months ago with the best news of his life, at least he could say he touched his dream.

Not that it felt that way to everyone in that moment.

“My mom starts crying, because she thinks I’m dead, because it is 5:30 in the morning,” the Notre Dame senior middle linebacker said with a laugh.

The actual news was that just moments earlier — and at a much saner hour three times zones away — Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly had informed the Orange, Calif., product that there was enough promise wrapped around Schmidt’s then-six career tackles that his days as a walk-on football player were over.

“The way I told him, I said, ‘Hey Dad, how would you like to save ‘X’ amount of dollars?’ ” Schmidt III related about his conversation with father Joe Schmidt II. “I had figured out the amount of money over the next couple of years.

“He’s like, ‘Hey yeah, that’s great. How are we going to do that?’ He had just taken off his breathing apparatus (CPAP) and he sounds like Darth Vader. I’m like, ‘Hey Dad, they’ve got these things like scholarships at Notre Dame, and I just got one.’ ”

And then the younger Schmidt went back to work as if the whole world still didn’t believe in him — grinding, learning, relentlessly pressing to turn this opportunity into something much more.

Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, the college football universe gets to see Schmidt’s clean, little secret, how he transcended waves of doubts from others to take the starting spot at middle linebacker just two seasons removed from a Heisman Trophy runner-up, Manti Te’o, playing there.

The 17th-ranked Irish open the season with a Rice team that notched 10 wins a year ago. Unveiled will be an ND defense that was almost totally made over in the offseason and is now teeming with unknowns – few more intrigu-ing than the 6-foot-1, 235-pound first-time starter.

Schmidt has become the brains of the defense, shrouded in strategic mysteries, and may very well end up as the heart of it as well. His pragmatic approach, thirst for learning and sentimental journey has rubbed off on fellow starting linebackers, former outside linebacker prodigy Jaylon Smith — now inside with Schmidt — and former wide receiver and ex-safety James Onwualu — both sophomores.

“I’ve never had a college kid that could learn like he learned,” marveled first-year Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who is stingy with his bursts of marveling,

Schmidt rarely marvels either, especially when it comes to himself, one of the many endearing qualities that put him in sync with VanGorder almost from the moment the coach walked in the door last January.

“I can’t ever think that I’m in some key role or that I’ve arrived,” Schmidt said. “I don’t ever want to feel like that, because it’s in that moment you get soft, you get weak, you get passed up. So I think it’s been a great journey, but that journey’s not over. We’ve got a long season. We’ve got to play Rice. That’s what I’m trying to focus on.

“Maybe when I’m done playing college football I can really focus on the big picture of the journey and every-thing that happened, but for now, it’s Rice.”

And in the future, he could hear footsteps. True freshman Nyles Morgan, as film-savvy as he is athletic, is ND’s next great hope at inside linebacker. He has moved into the No. 2 spot at middle linebacker, despite a steep learn-ing curve when it comes to the playbook.

Then there’s Jarrett Grace, the prototypical 6-foot-3, 253-pound senior who was ND’s starting middle linebacker last season when he sustained four fractures in his right leg on Oct. 5 in a 37-34 win over Arizona State. His hereto-fore shaky recovery, that included two surgeries, suddenly picked up some convincing momentum last week.

Kelly now expects him to be available in some capacity by the middle of September.

All of which sort of pushes Schmidt back toward an underdog role, which he continually and convincingly out-grows.

It all started during his senior season at Santa Ana Mater Dei. Despite putting up big numbers (98 total tackles, 10 for loss and 6½ sacks), despite playing for a program that regularly stocks college football rosters and is the only high school to produce two Heisman Trophy winners (USC’s Matt Leinart and Notre Dame’s John Huarte). Schmidt’s only scholarship offers came from Cincinnati and Air Force.

“At the time, it bothered me a little bit,” Schmidt said of the many snubs that led to him deciding to walk on at the school he grew up loving. “But I never saw it as a limit or whatever. I don’t care what these recruiting sites think or whatever this guy thinks, I’m going out there to play football. And I’m going to do everything I can to help, hope-fully, Notre Dame if they accept me.”

He spent his freshman season at ND as a bystander, then started to evolve into a special teams regular as a sophomore. In 2013, his first season as a scholarship player, Schmidt started getting reps at linebacker, and more meaningful ones after Grace was lost for the season.

The very next game, his pass breakup late against USC helped seal a 14-10 Irish survival and Schmidt finished the season with 15 tackles, two for losses.

Grace’s injury, Morgan’s youth and the exhausted eligibilities of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese opened the possi-bility of Schmidt expanding his role in 2014. He put that in motion, and so much more, by seeking out VanGorder and meeting with the defensive coordinator whenever the linebacker had a free moment last spring.

“Unusual,” was VanGorder’s assessment of Schmidt taking the initiative.

“I really focused early on, ‘Hey, let’s get in, let’s meet extra,’ ” Schmidt said. “‘Can you come in on this day and just sit with me? And let’s talk. Let’s just talk, man. I will just listen. I’ll bring a notebook. We can get on the board, draw this up.’

“And for me, I’m a conceptual learner. In school, football, everything. I need to know ‘why?” I have to know ‘why?’ I’m kind of ADD, so if I don’t know why, I’m going to be focusing on why the whole time and then bouncing off the walls, so that was a big deal for me.”

Why Schmidt has ascended so far and so fast is because the many limits others project onto him he doesn’t see.

“I don’t believe anyone has limits,” Schmidt said. “Shoot man, you want to be president? Go do it. I think that’s one of the big problems people have is putting limits on themselves. The limits are there, because you put them there. If you feel like you have no limits, you can accomplish anything.

“That’s how I want to live my life. If I ever have children, a family, I’ll teach them the same thing. I think that’s what my dad did a really good job of teaching me, is you can really do anything you can put your mind to and that’s really how I try to play football and how I try to live my life.”

Which is certain to make Joe II and mom Debra smile — even at 5:30 a.m.

“I can’t tell you how good it felt,” Joe III said of the eventual elation in their early morning conversation two summers ago. “It’s really hard to tell your dad, ‘Hey, I can pay for school if I go to these other places.’ But he’s al-ways been so supportive of that.

“And I can’t thank him enough, because he made it possible for all this to occur and for my Notre Dame experi-ence to happen. It’s just been so sweet, and I’m so thankful.”

EHansen@SBTinfo.com

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Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Former walk-on Joe Schmidt, left, has pushed himself into a starting role at middle linebacker in Notre Dame's season opener Saturday vs. Rice. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)

WHAT: No. 17 Notre Dame (0-0) vs. Rice (0-0)

WHEN: Saturday at 3:30 p.m. (EDT)

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium; South Bend, Ind.

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-AM (960), WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN -FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 21.