DT Jacob Lacey bringing athletic frame, Notre Dame legacy to South Bend

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Jacob Lacey was born seven weeks premature.

Not that you’d know it to look at him.

Today, Notre Dame’s 2019 defensive tackle commit from South Warren High School in Bowling Green, Ky., is a 6-foot-2, 300-pound mass of meat and fast-twitch muscles. He rushes the quarterback like a wrecking ball that broke free of its chain and was rolled down a steep embankment. In fourth grade, Jacob was a 160-pound fullback, gleefully barreling over comparatively slender sixth graders.

He’s always been big.

Or, at least, bigger than expected.

“The boy comes out six pounds, two ounces, which was just as big as my full-term older son,” said Jacob’s father, David Lacey, who worked at the time as a labor and delivery nurse. “If he was full term, they said he’d have been about 11 or 12 pounds.

“To be that early and be that size, the doctors and everybody were amazed.”

Thus began Jacob Lacey’s streak of amazing feats. His father will tell you about the time a 2-year-old Jacob made 21 consecutive shots on a Nerf basketball hoop. Or the time Jacob the 80-pound third grader broke two different ball carriers’ arms while making tackles in the same season. Or the time he won back-to-back state wrestling championships in third and fourth grade.

Or, how about the time Jacob the fifth grader played in a travel baseball game in Owensboro, Ky., and walloped a home run more than 400 feet into a cornfield and over a highway beyond the fence?

David Lacey has a lot of stories. But not all of them are amazing.

In fact, Jacob’s football career almost never got off the ground. Back in second grade, when his son started playing, David attended a practice and heard a kid crying on the field.

It was Jacob.

“He’s never played and they put him up against this big dude,” David Lacey recalled. “Jacob didn’t know what he was doing, and (the other kid) was just laying him out.”

After practice, Jacob told his father that he wanted to quit. Instead, David served up a lesson.

“I said, ‘Let me tell you something: God gave you that big booty for football,’ ” David Lacey said. “I got down in the kitchen, and I said, ‘Hit me. Low man wins.’ ”

So Jacob hit him, and nothing happened.

“That ain’t nothing,” David said.

He hit him again.

“That ain’t nothing.”

He hit him again.

“That ain’t nothing.”

So Jacob crouched even lower, and he hit him, and David finally, dramatically dropped to the floor.

Jacob smiled.

“See?” David said. “Low man wins.”

“We go to practice the next day, and I hear crying on the field again,” David Lacey said. “This time it was the other boy. He said, ‘I don’t want to go up against Jacob anymore.’

“From that point on, Jacob was wearing everybody out.”

He still is. Lacey — one of two verbal commits in Notre Dame’s 2019 class — is ranked as a four-star recruit and the No. 9 defensive tackle in the 2019 class by Rivals, as well as a four-star prospect and the No. 8 defensive tackle by 247Sports. He earned scholarship offers from Clemson, Michigan, Michigan State, Penn State, Tennessee, Cincinnati and more.

When Lacey committed to Notre Dame in July, CBS Sports Network recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called him “the best player at any position in Kentucky in 2019.”

And that’s just football. On a baseball diamond, the 300-pound first baseman led his team in steals — yes, steals — in his freshman season at South Warren. He drew confused looks when he routinely pinch-ran for smaller teammates.

Last year, Jacob even transitioned to left field, because — according to his father — “he wanted to prove to everybody that he could chase a ball down.”

Baseballs or quarterbacks, it hardly even matters.

***

Football runs in Jacob Lacey’s family.

Dave Duerson — who was an All-American safety at Notre Dame in 1981 and 1982 and played in the NFL with the Chicago Bears, New York Giants and Phoenix Cardinals from 1983 to 1993 — was David Lacey’s cousin.

On Feb. 17, 2011, Duerson committed suicide via a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest. Prior to his death, he requested that his brain be donated for research into chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a neurodegenerative disease found in people who have sustained repeated head injuries.

Duerson, who was later confirmed to have suffered from CTE, was 50 years old. His remains one of the most high-profile cases of a disease that has become inexorably linked with American football.

Still, that tragedy didn’t dissuade David Lacey from introducing football to his sons.

“I understand, looking back now, what Dave went through,” David Lacey said. “Knowing some of those stories and things that happened in the NFL and college football back then … when I played football you got your bell rung. Well, we know now that’s a concussion. We used the smelling salts. Dave didn’t know half the time what was going on in the game (after he suffered a concussion).

“Nowadays it’s not badminton; we know that. But I feel very comfortable. I’ve been around football all my life. I think the benefits outweigh the risk. The technology is catching up. The coaching is definitely there.”

And, though Duerson is gone, his memory lingers. Jacob Lacey’s older brother, Brycen, also played safety and wore No. 22 — Duerson’s number with the Chicago Bears — throughout his career at South Warren High School.

In his freshman season, when Brycen was a senior, Jacob sported No. 55 — which he considers “a backwards 22” — and the brothers contributed to an undefeated season and a state championship.

“That was probably one of the best years of my life,” Jacob Lacey said, “getting to play with (Brycen) and growing closer to him, really.”

On the next level, Jacob Lacey’s jersey will represent Duerson yet again.

If not with the number, then definitely with the logo.

“Everybody has great football, but the education piece and the fact that they push education with the football is a great thing,” Jacob Lacey said of his decision to commit to Notre Dame. “That defense they’ve got now is really, really great. I can’t wait to be a part of that.

“So, putting all of that together with what they have, there’s no reason not to commit.”

Before he made his decision, the Lacey family took a nationwide tour of recruiting trips. Notre Dame. Clemson. Michigan. Michigan State. Penn State. Stanford.

His heart, however, had already settled in South Bend.

“I kept visiting different schools, and then in the back of my head I kept thinking about Notre Dame,” Jacob Lacey said. “It was just like, ‘If I’m going to all of these schools but I’m still thinking about this one school, then there must be a reason for that.’”

So Jacob ended his recruitment. On July 28, he Face-timed Notre Dame defensive line coach Mike Elston, who was attending a party with the Irish coaches. Elston handed the phone to head coach Brian Kelly, and Lacey promptly committed.

“Somebody did a backflip into the pool, which was pretty funny,” Jacob Lacey said.

Turns out, some commitments cause cannonballs.

Four months later, the Laceys remain equally excited … even without the pool.

“To know the story with Jacob being born seven weeks premature, to where he is now, and to be blessed to go to Notre Dame, especially with the things my cousin Dave went through, I am humbled and I just can’t believe it,” David Lacey said. “When I think about it, it’s just humbling and a blessing. That’s the only thing I can tell anybody.”

Added Jacob Lacey: “Just to know that I’m going to be able to suit up in that stadium and they’re going to know me and I get to give my best to the best school is pretty cool.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame defensive tackle commit Jacob Lacey, a 2019 recruit, walks around campus before the University of Southern California at Notre Dame football game. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)