Notre Dame LB Joe Schmidt looks forward to fall camp

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Fall camp is not supposed to be fun.

It’s work — agonizing, sweaty, soul-crushing work under a baking Indiana sun, an equally necessary and painful step towards the bright lights of fall Saturdays. It’s the bridge to fun, rather than the fun itself.

“Camp is exciting, but it’s also camp…and it’s the worst,” Notre Dame graduate student defensive back Matthias Farley joked on Sunday, summarizing the feelings of many of his teammates.

But not Joe Schmidt. Not in previous seasons, and especially not now.

Coming off a 2014 season in which he made 65 tackles in the first eight games before breaking his fibula in early November, Schmidt — a 6-foot, 235-pound graduate student linebacker — aches for fall camp, for the two-a-days, for the lifts, for the sprints, for all the grimy inconveniences many others would happily bypass.

After being forced to watch the vast majority of spring practices from the sideline, Schmidt has been moving at full-speed during his team’s summer workouts. But, entering his fifth fall in South Bend, the Orange, Calif., native with the ever-present smile understands that camp presents a more severe — and welcome — challenge.

“Funny enough, I actually love work,” Schmidt said enthusiastically. “I’m the kind of guy that goes out to camp with a smile. I’m not going to be upset about it. I’m not going to ever have a frown. People would give so much money — they’d give limbs — to go out there and do what I’m doing every day. Especially after my injury, the last thing I’m going to do is take that for granted.

“I love what I do. I’m really excited. I think it’s going to be a blast, and I can’t wait to get to work and get better. The possibility of getting better, the opportunity to get better, and just being out there with my friends is great.”

Ask his coaches and teammates, and the feeling is mutual. At the time of his injury last season, Schmidt was leading the Irish in tackles, while simultaneously helping align the defense in first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s intricate scheme. Notre Dame was 7-1 with Schmidt on the field in 2014, and 1-4 without him.

Surrounded by the likes of Jaylon Smith, Jarrett Grace, James Onwualu and Nyles Morgan, Schmidt isn’t the only piece of Notre Dame’s puzzle at linebacker.

But he may be the most valuable.

“He got everybody lined up play in and play out,” Farley said. “He’s probably one of the smartest guys on and off the field, and he’s just a great leader. So to have all of those things back, it’s really awesome for all of us.”

Schmidt’s road back to fall camp — and eventually, Notre Dame Stadium — wasn’t always a direct one, filled with hurdles in a physically and mentally demanding rehab. To allow his body to heal, Schmidt had to adopt a degree of patience that he had never previously known. He had to trust in the process, in the certainty that his long, winding road would eventually reach a finish line.

“It was definitely the worst injury I have ever encountered, but you kind of just learn that it doesn’t matter how stubborn you are, you have to treat the injury with respect,” Schmidt said. “You have to treat the rehab with respect. It’s just going to take time. It’s a daily struggle inside your own mind to stay aggressive, to keep getting after it with the rehab. I kind of learned that about myself.

“Sometimes being stubborn is good, and you’re always trying to bash down that door. But you have to be smarter, too, when you rehab.”

Finally, rehab is over. The season is almost here. One can understand, then, why Schmidt itches for the considerable struggle of 90-degree August mornings, of up-downs and endless repetitions and ratty blood-stained uniforms.

But if he’s this excited for fall camp, what will the season opener against Texas feel like?

“That’s a ways off. We’ve got camp, a lot of practices between now and then,” Schmidt said with a longing grin. “But it will be just like every other time I’ve run out of the tunnel at Notre Dame Stadium — the best day of my life.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame senior Joe Schmidt is back from a broken fibula and ready for fall camp. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)