Notre Dame LB Joe Schmidt uses Clemson disappointment as fuel

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Joe Schmidt entered the same way he does every Wednesday, with a smile and no shoes, jaunting to the podium right as the clock struck noon.

“Gentlemen, great to see everyone again,” Notre Dame’s most visible captain declared.

Schmidt’s weekly media session has always been coated in a lighthearted glaze, whether it be the time the graduate student linebacker was introduced as “Shoeless Joe Schmidt,” or the time he joked that he might be the biggest trash-talker on the team because, “I’m a very fierce-looking guy,” or the time he defiantly argued that “Rudy” featured the greatest movie soundtrack ever.

This occasion was no different, for a while.

When the subject of Notre Dame’s 24-22 loss to Clemson was resurrected, however, any evidence of that signature merriment quickly drained from his face.

“I am livid,” Schmidt said. “I think it’s something that we need to use, as I said, to fuel the fire, and something we can continue to build the rest of our season on. If we use this as a catalyst to play even better, that’s what we need to do.

“But nobody is feeling sorry for themselves. No one is happy right now. And that’s really what I feel it should be. If you’re a guy that wants to be a champion, wants to be a winner, you can’t be happy if you lose.”

Schmidt, quite evidently, isn’t happy. And after he managed just one tackle in the Death Valley mud, he shouldn’t be. But this is a new week, with a new opponent — undefeated Navy.

It’s a team, and a scheme, Schmidt is well-suited to exploit.

“First of all, Joe’s built for that inside-out game and physically is strong,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “He can take on a guard. He’s very aware of how to play the option. But I think, more than anything else, he’s built for that inside-out game that you have to play when you’re talking about stopping the fullback and then working your way out to the quarterback.

“I think a true middle linebacker enjoys these types of games more so than maybe the spread of being displaced a little bit out of the box and having to worry about covering down and then coming back in.”

That was certainly true a season ago, when Schmidt racked up eight tackles in less than two quarters in a 49-39 victory over Navy, before his season was abruptly ended with a fractured ankle.

In this case, a player who is constantly commended for his intelligence and leadership was able to exhibit some underappreciated physicality.

“Joe plays like he’s 6-6, 260 and leads like he’s nine-foot-something,” graduate student defensive back Matthias Farley said earlier this season. “He has an incredible brain. He has an incredible mind and when it comes to football, he’s also an incredibly physical player. I don’t think he gets enough credit, period.”

But this week, especially, Schmidt demands no credit. He doesn’t ask for or expect praise. After all, that won’t erase what happened last Saturday.

The only way to escape the past is to attack the present. And while he’s still smiling, the memory of that disappointment has soaked into his skin.

“I love playing every game. There isn’t a snap that I don’t like playing,” Schmidt said. “Actually, I’ll take that back. I hate when I’m not playing well.

“But it’s still better than not playing. And I love this game. Even in the worst plays in my career I’ve been having a great time. This is really a game, and it’s a game that I love. And I’m playing for Notre Dame, which is great.”

Winning for Notre Dame, Schmidt knows, is even better.

Notre Dame’s Sheldon Day (91) and Joe Schmidt (38) celebrate a big stop during the Notre Dame-Georgia Tech NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN