Notre Dame LB Joe Schmidt stakes his claim

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND – Judging by the ferocity he showed against Rice, Joe Schmidt’s mission isn’t to keep a seat warm for Jarrett Grace.

Schmidt has committed himself to assume ownership of the middle linebacker position for the Notre Dame football team.

His play had a sense of urgency about it.

While leading the Irish with a career-high eight tackles, the 6-foot-1, 235-pound senior who has gone from walk-on to starter, has willed himself into a leadership role on defense heading into Saturday night’s showdown with Michigan.

“We had great communication,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said of his defense. “Joe Schmidt does a great job of communicating. He’s an extension of (defensive coordinator) coach (Brian) VanGorder on the field. It was great to see Joe do a great job there.”

Schmidt’s an easy guy to root for. He turned down scholarship opportunities out of high school in Southern California to follow his dream to Notre Dame. Relegated to special teams duty through most of his Irish career, he wasn’t even a depth chart afterthought at linebacker with Manti Te’o and Grace ahead of him in 2012.

Te’o graduated, and six games into last season Grace went down with a dreadful leg injury.

Once considered too small and not physical enough, Schmidt suddenly became a hot commodity. He played critical minutes behind Carlo Calabrese, who filled in for Grace.

Calabrese is gone now. Grace’s return is in limbo. Freshman Nyles Morgan isn’t ready yet. Suddenly, Schmidt is the best option.

It’s called opportunity.

Confidence gained from his performance against Rice has to be a benefit with the Wolverines on the

horizon. In the last two years, Schmidt had a grand total of 12 tackles.

“(Schmidt has) some things that he’s got to get better at,” said Kelly. “But, for a true first time start, he was the best player for us (against Rice).

“He made a lot of tackles; got us in the right fronts; was a great communicator. Joe did a lot of great things. But we still have to evolve at that position, as well. There’s a number of things that coach VanGorder will continue to coach him on. Great thing about Joe, he’s going to get better.

“What you saw on Saturday is, (like it is) for all those (new) guys, just a starting point. They’re going to get better. That’s the good part about it.”

A humble fellow, Schmidt didn’t bask in the moment to talk about his particular game that much.

“I don’t know if I learned anything new (about the Irish defense after the first game), it’s just an affirmation of thoughts that I’ve had,” Schmidt said. “We were tenacious. On the whole, we learned that we’re going to fight as a defense; that we’re going to handle adversity; and we’re never going to stop throwing punches.

“When we get in there, we’ve got a lot of guys who just bow up. We want to win so badly. That’s something we learned about ourselves.”

Seeing live bullets for the first time as a leader of a unit wasn’t overwhelming. Preparation eliminated the angst.

“Thank God I practice against one of the best offenses in the country,” Schmidt said. “We get every single concept, every single play. In terms of communication, there were a few plays I would want back, but on the whole the communication was pretty crisp, pretty clean; a good building block for the future.”

Schmidt has worked – and willed – himself into being a piece of that construction process.

He holds the deed to that territory in the middle of the Notre Dame defense.

Ownership comes to those who choose to invest the effort and intensity.

Schmidt allowed his play to stake that claim.

Chiefs add Schwenke

Two former Notre Dame players were resigned Monday to NFL practice squads. Former Irish running back George Atkinson III (Oakland) and defensive lineman Kona Schwenke (Kansas City) signed after being released Saturday.

Linebacker Joe Schmidt made a strong statement in Saturday’s season opener against Rice that he can more than handle the workload as a starting middle linebacker for Notre Dame. (AP Photo/JOE RAYMOND)