Notre Dame football captains come with quality and quantity

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He swallowed hard and eventually won the battle with his tear ducts, at least until cameras stopped rolling and the tape recorders shut off.

“You have to set very high goals and standards,” an emotional Notre Dame starting middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, once upon a time a walk-on, remembered Thursday of his mind-set walking in the door to the Irish football program with relative anonymity four years ago.

“And I tried to do everything I could to just be a guy people could count on and people came to if they needed something, and someone who drove the team and helped makes us better.”

Those around the grad student from Orange, Calif., eventually came to see him in that light, so much so Thursday the guy who walks, talks and radiates as if he were hijacked from a 1950s sitcom was named one of five captains for the Irish football team.

Three other defensive players — grad student safety Matthias Farley, senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day and junior linebacker Jaylon Smith — and a lone offensive rep, grad student center Nick Martin, join Schmidt on one of the largest captain contingents in Notre Dame history.

“I probably could have named 10 — seriously,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “I actually went back through the media guide to check what the most captains were, because I had it whittled down to seven. I was trying to make the case for seven.

“I seemed to have been the guy who has always had one more of everything here, so I better try to get to five, so that’s how we got to five.”

Here are Kelly’s thoughts on all five of them, two of whom — Day and Martin — are repeats from last season:

• On Martin: “(He) had to fight through a very difficult injury he had the year before, and it was difficult for him most of the season just to get healthy. And you could see this year, being fully healthy, he’s been able to lead not only the offensive line, but the entire offense.”

• On Day: “I think what’s impressed me the most about him is the way he’s practiced — every single day with energy and a desire to want to get better.”

• On Farley: “He’s just that kind of person that he really gets along with so many players on our team and is a guy that is going to be very important to us in a number of different positions.”

• On Smith: “He’s our best player on defense — by far. I mean, it’s not even close. We just felt like it was important that he be in a leadership position.”

• On Schmidt: “I think (he) speaks for himself in the sense of what a representative for our program (he is) in the community, in the classroom, and then on the field just a great communicator, a galvanizer.”

Schmidt’s opportunity to climb the depth chart began midway through the 2013 season, when then-starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace suffered four fractures in his right leg that not only ended that season, but wiped out 2014 as well.

Schmidt was awarded a scholarship prior to the 2014 season when his career tackle total stood at six, became the starter that season and was voted team MVP despite missing the final 5½ games with a broken leg.

Now the loudest footsteps behind him are Grace’s, as the 6-foot-3, 253-pounder flashed his 2013 form, leaped over rising sophomore Nyles Morgan and is now option 1-A at middle linebacker.

His biggest fan has been and continues to be Schmidt.

“I love Jarrett Grace,” Schmidt said, “He’s my roommate and one of my best friends in the whole world. He’s been playing great football right now and he’s going to play a ton of snaps for us this year.

“When he’s out there, I feel like I’m out there. And when I’m out there, he feels like he’s out there. We’re brothers, and we’ll be like that ‘til the day we die.”

Schmidt’s big dreams never uncoupled him from the reality in his early years that even playing one down for the Irish might not ever happen.

“You have a ton of doubts,” he said. “Anyone who says they don’t ever have a sleepless night or doubt themselves, I feel like, is lying, I don’t know anyone with that much confidence.

“You’ve got to have enough confidence to overcome those and the courage to say, ‘If I fail, I fail.’ And kind of go after the dreams you have. I’m still trying to continue to do everything I can to get better each and every day to help make this university and this team great.”

Notre Dame linebacker Joe Schmidt, here basking in a 2014 win over Stanford, had reason to celebrate again Thursday after being named team captain, along with Sheldon Day, Matthias Farley, Nick Martin and Jaylon Smith. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)