Versatile Jarrett Grace at Notre Dame Pro Day: 'I'm not done'

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jarrett Grace didn’t flinch.

It would have been understandable if the former Notre Dame linebacker balked on Thursday when an NFL scout asked Grace to run through drills with the defensive backs, at a position he had never practiced or played. Grace was the only linebacker participating in the event, and thus, a relative afterthought when it came to scheduling the workouts. At 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, he could hardly pass for a cornerback or safety.

Still, he happily obliged.

“I was thinking, ‘Well, I haven’t practiced that at all! But whatever.’ You just have to be ready for your opportunity,” Grace said with a laugh. “That’s all you can do — be thankful. My weave pedal was a little bit shaky, just because I’ve never done that before. Other than that, I felt great about it.”

Considering what he has overcome, the fact that Grace ran through any drill on Thursday counted as a personal victory. The fifth-year senior missed 20 consecutive games in 2013 and 2014 with a broken leg, before making a triumphant return and appearing in all 13 games in his final season.

In the aftermath of an equally challenging and rewarding Notre Dame career, Grace doesn’t expect to be drafted.

But he also refuses to quit.

“There were definitely times of doubt throughout this journey when … I didn’t know what was going to be the next step for Jarrett Grace,” he said, pausing to swallow his swelling emotions. “I didn’t know. It’s hard for me to say that, because I try to be extremely positive and always have the bar set so high.

“But realistically, it’s hard to do that sometimes. There’s so many questions. To see where I’m at today, I’m definitely very pleased. I’m not done, though. I’ll tell you that. I’m not done. I think the best is in front of me.”

The linebacker (not defensive back) that arrived at Notre Dame’s Pro Day on Thursday was already an improved version of the one that produced 26 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in 2015. Grace recorded a 4.75-second 40-yard dash, markedly faster than the 4.9 he ran in January. He was also 25 pounds lighter than the lumbering 265-pound linebacker that struggled to run down Buckeyes on New Year’s Day.

“I was a little heftier then, and I was trying to run with Braxton Miller,” Grace said with a laugh.

While some things have changed, others unmercifully haven’t. Grace is enrolled in 17 credits at Notre Dame this semester, training for his career while trudging towards his degree.

“My mind is just rattled right now. I’m fried, seriously,” Grace said, doused in sheets of sweat. “I forgot to email my teachers. I skipped a couple classes yesterday so I could just chill out and not have all this pressure on me.”

With the injury behind him and unchartered waters ahead, Grace hopes to earn an invitation to an NFL training camp this offseason, then to scratch and claw to stick around — in any role, at any position.

Notre Dame was a dream come true, but Grace still hasn’t stopped dreaming.

“As a little kid, I wore a Dan Marino jersey for probably three Halloweens in a row, then I transitioned into a Ricky Williams jersey for a couple years,” Grace said. “Then I became a Bengals fan. I actually have a (Tyler) Eifert jersey in my closet right now. This is where I’ve always wanted to be.”

Thursday, displaying an awkward, unplanned backpedal in front of a hoard of NFL scouts, Grace was happy. He was right where he belonged.

“To be honest, I catch myself just smiling out there,” Grace said. “It’s like, ‘What the heck? Get this grin off my face.’ It may sound so silly, but I really feel like a big puppy dog just running around out there.

“A lot of my buddies call me ‘Wild Man Grace,’ because I love the game — just running around and seeing your brothers compete and succeed. To me, that’s what it’s all about.”

Smith’s spokesman

The first person Jaylon Smith saw when he returned to campus was Jarrett Grace.

Driving outside of the Guglielmino Athletic Complex this week, Smith passed his fellow linebacker, who was walking back from class.

“Jaylon!” Grace yelled, banging his hand excitedly on Smith’s passing car.

“JG!” Smith responded.

That interaction, though brief, was roughly the same length as Smith’s interview with reporters on Thursday. The former Irish linebacker, who continues to recover from a torn ACL and LCL in his left knee, bench-pressed 24 reps at Pro Day but otherwise declined to participate in drills. He managed a few words to a mob of reporters before sailing back out of the Loftus Center.

But though Smith was relatively silent, Grace was more than willing to serve as a spokesman in his stead.

“He’s a student of the game. He can offer that to his teammates instantly,” Grace said. “If you’re not going to have his presence on the field, you’re going to have it on the sideline and in the locker room — someone who’s very detail-oriented, just thirsty for more.”

Though Smith’s physical traits — the ones currently threatened by the severity of his freakish injury — are undeniable, Grace highlighted the mental aspect that further separates him from his peers.

“That was one thing about his relationship with (defensive coordinator Brian) VanGorder, he was always in his office,” Grace said. “If he wasn’t in class, he would instantly transport and be here in the Gug, watching film, wanting more and more and more. He didn’t necessarily want to rely on his physical ability. That’s a tremendous trait, God-given and something he’s worked towards as well. But what makes these guys great players are their instincts on the field and ability to direct that to the ball, to the play, understanding the game as well.

“That’s just taken to the next level. There’s plenty of tremendous athletes out there. You see guys popping up all the time, running these crazy numbers. Jaylon has that and the other side. He has the flip side of the coin as well.”

Grace, who knows more than he’d care to about arduous rehabs, communicated with Smith following his injury in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day.

His advice: keep working, and don’t lose hope.

“Initially, I just told him, ‘Hey, keep your head up and trust in the process,’” Grace recalled. “’You’re going to have tremendous resources around you to guide you in the right direction so that you can make this full recovery, to put your body in the best position to heal and recover and be prepared for the opportunities you have in front of you.

‘Trust in that. Keep your faith. Keep being Jaylon. Stay the course, and if things don’t work out, you can look in the mirror with no regrets.’”

But will an NFL team regret drafting Smith if the consensus All-American’s nerve damage prevents him from returning to the player he was?

“Say he doesn’t (make a full recovery),” Grace said. “An 80 percent Jaylon Smith is going to be better than everyone else in the draft. That’s just reality. He’s a beast.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Jarrett Grace runs a drill during Notre Dame's NFL football Pro Day in South Bend, Ind., Thursday, March 31, 2016. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)