Jarrett Grace finishes Notre Dame career in new role

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

GLENDALE, Ariz. — No matter the circumstances faced by the Notre Dame football team’s defense, the Irish always had linebacker Jaylon Smith on which to lean.

Friday in the BattleFrog Fiesta Bowl, the eighth-ranked Irish were forced to follow a new script, and one that took them to an old, familiar face. 

Jarrett Grace.

The grad linebacker and Ohio native actually became the next man in for the next man in, early in Notre Dame's 44-28 loss to No. 7 Ohio State at University of Phoenix Stadium. And ND's starting middle linebacker in 2013 until injury truncated that season, in his final collegiate game, was tasked with playing weakside linebacker for the first time in his career.

Seven minutes into the sixth-ever matchup between the two Midwestern powers, eighth-ranked Notre Dame's leading tackler and most versatile defender, Smith, went down. For the first time in the last three seasons, the Irish were forced to do without the junior from Fort Wayne, Ind.

It wasn’t easy.

Next man in Te’von Coney finished the first quarter. Then, on the first play of the second quarter, while chasing OSU quarterback J.T. Barrett, the freshman backup went down with a shoulder injury.

“(Inside linebacker) Joe (Schmidt) is a leader on our defense, but he would tell you that Jaylon impacts what we do defensively significantly,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “Then Te'von obviously goes out right away. We're putting Jarrett Grace in a very difficult position. Jarrett is unbelievable. He's a (middle) linebacker, a rush end, he's a (weakside) linebacker. He's whatever you ask him to do. He comes in there and competes.”

It was the biggest role and the most significant snaps Grace has taken since missing a season and a half with career-threatening multiple fractures in his right leg and two surgeries that followed. Grace, who came into the game with 17 tackles all season, responded Friday with nine tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry.

“You transition, next man in,” Grace said. “Te’von has been working at that (weakside linebacker) spot for so long and was prepared. It’s our responsibility as linebackers to know everything. Eventually, I got thrown into a spot I’ve never been in. But, you’re counted on by your teammates to do your job.”

Still Smith's speed, intensity, instinct, intelligence and strength were missed. In need of a big play, Smith usually was the one to make it.

"He's a monster," said Ohio State coach Urban Meyer, whose Buckeyes finished 12-1. "He's a dude. He's a guy that is going to be playing in the NFL for a long time. I wish I had the chance to shake his hand. I know his family."

“(Smith) is a praying mantis out there,” Grace seconded. “Things go a lot smoother with him out there. He can make plays a lot of other guys can’t make. You feel real confident with him on your side.”

While Grace was individually impacted as the next next man in, Schmidt felt the sting of Smith’s absence as he considered the complete defensive scheme.

“(Smith’s) the most productive player on the field,” Schmidt said. “He’s the best player on the field. You knew you had to step up and make plays without him. He makes plays that no one thinks he’s going to make. When that’s gone, you’ve gotta be on your game and start making some plays.

“I wouldn’t say we take him for granted. We’re all aware of how talented Jaylon is. As soon as he went out, I knew I would have to pick it up and make some more plays inside.”

Schmidt did his job in stepping up the production by tying with safety Elijah Shumate with a game-high 13 tackles. He also came up with his first interception of the season, bobbling the Barrett pass tipped by nose guard Jarron Jones before finally securing it.

“(The interception) was frightening,” Schmidt said. “I was choking on my own spit, ‘I’ve gotta catch this ball.’ Then I was so worried I was going to drop it, I was protecting it like a child. That was a great moment.”

Moments like that allowed the Irish to avoid an implosion, even with Smith on the sidelines with his knee immobilized.

They survived without their leader.

Notre Dame’s Jarrett Grace (59) tries to bring down Ohio State’s Braxton Miller (1) during the 2016 Fiesta Bowl on Friday, Jan. 1, 2016, at the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN