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Grace not yet under pressure

If anyone in the Notre Dame locker room was less than elated last December when All-American Manti Te’o announced his plans to stick around, it would have been linebacker Jarrett Grace. The rising sophomore from Cincinnati seems to be solidifying a spot as Te’o’s heir apparent at the middle of the Irish defense. He says even though it meant he would spend another year away from the spotlight, his deep sigh that night was one more of relief than disappointment.

Irish linebacker Jarrett Grace will be a hard player to keep off the field next fall.

Grace started turning heads on scout team duty during his first fall in South Bend. He didn’t see the field as a freshman but played his way onto the travel roster and into a back-up role at certain times behind the reliable Te’o. If Notre Dame’s leading tackler had decided to turn pro, Grace would likely be in a battle for the daunting job of filling his spot. Instead, he gets a crucial year to develop in the shadows.

“It just gives me another year to learn some more. I’m thankful for it because it’s going to benefit me as well as him,” he said.

Grace is working as Te’o’s understudy this spring and trying to mirror his every move. He said he is learning about the intangible traits it takes to play middle linebacker and call the shots on defense. He’s starting to uncover the nuances that allow the seniors in front of him on the depth chart to play slow presciently.

“When it comes to actual game play, going against the offense, [Te’o] has done it for so long. He knows everything,” Grace said. “It’s almost as if he can predict what the offense is going to do. Sometimes he’ll give me a little pointer saying scoot this way because they’re going to do this or that. I try to mimic that.”

Like most players, the 6-3, 240-pound Grace hit the weight room hard in his first winter at college, but nothing got stronger during the past few months than his voice. At bowl practice in December, his calls at the line of scrimmage were so timid that even his fellow linebackers had to yell back a few times before they could hear what he was saying. Now, a better understanding of the system and more confidence in his own abilities has given the youngster a bigger bark.

Irish coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco are hearing him. He entered camp fighting junior Kendall Moore and preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt for second-team snaps. A week later he seems to have emerged as the clear No. 2 at the Mike position. Diaco said Grace is carving out a spot in the action.

“If he keeps developing like he’s developing right now he’s going to be a hard guy to keep off the field,” Diaco said. “There are a lot of jobs to do. Manti has shown there are times when he doesn’t need to be in there or can’t be in there. So, those opportunities would be a time when Grace will go in.”

Grace will likely be a special teams mainstay this year and has a chance to get in the game on defense in certain packages, according to Diaco. He grew up defending the option at Colerain High School, which would be a big asset for the Irish in its season opener against Navy. The unique reads and rules that slow down most linebackers when playing against the option come naturally to Grace now.

“I do have experience defending it — with the discipline, discipline, discipline,” he said. “I’ve seen it so many times through high school within conference play. So I think when times comes to game plan for Navy and those types of teams possibly I could be thrown in there for the game plan.”

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