Notre Dame junior Jarrett Grace had already run through the tunnel in Notre Dame Stadium. He had seen the 80,795 seats filled with far more bodies than the number that made it to the Blue-Gold Game in late April. He had made tackles and heard his name piped through the public address system. But he had never done any of it as the Irish starting linebacker.
Junior linebacker Jarrett Grace tied for the team lead with eight tackles in the Blue-Gold Game April 20.
The spring game, among other things, is a learning experience for the next wave of players projected to take the field in the fall — a dress rehearsal to grow comfortable on the big stage when the stakes aren’t high. Although Grace played in all 13 games for the Irish last season, his new job as a replacement for one of the school’s top three all-time leading tacklers made him an intriguing player to watch in the Blue-Gold Game.
“It wasn’t exactly a full game situation with all the fans and all the that, but it really helped with the communication. There was a little pressure,” Grace said. “You get a little butterflies out there. I feel like that’s going to help the guys prepare for the season just getting that feeling.”
Irish head coach Brian Kelly said one of his main goals going into the scrimmage was to see how relatively new players like Grace would respond to the pressure of a game simulation. The second-year linebacker made eight tackles — tying classmate Ishaq Williams for the team high — and broke up a pass on his first day patrolling the middle of the field in Notre Dame Stadium.
His performance in the spring finale helped further cement the growing notion that Grace will be the one who steps into Manti Te’o’s vacated shoes in September. Grace didn’t see the field as freshman, but became a regular contributor on special teams in 2012. He made 12 tackles, with a team-high 10 of those coming in punt and kickoff coverage.
The Cincinnati native earned high praise throughout the offseason from his coaches and teammates. He started to emerge as a defensive leader in the spring as he earned more respect.
“Grace is a high-effort player. He’s a tough guy,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “He plays defensive football like you would like to see it played.”
Grace still saw the linebacker depth chart as slightly muddled following the spring game because of injuries. Fifth-year senior Dan Fox was largely inactive during the 15 practices in March and April because of shoulder surgery he had months earlier. Fox played alongside Te’o at the Will linebacker spot for most of the last two seasons, but he’s a candidate to flip between both inside positions if he’s needed.
Putting Fox in Grace’s place would allow him to be on the field with his 2012 co-starter Carlo Calabrese, giving the Irish 10 years worth of collegiate experience at the position. Notre Dame will likely use all three of them in a three-for-two rotation depending on game situations.
“It’s hard to say,” Grace said when asked where he stood in the pecking order. “I feel like I put myself in a good situation by working hard. … That’s a good situation to have if everyone is feeling confident and everyone feels like they can step on the field and contribute.”
He plans to continue to push to solidify a spot on the field this summer by adding to his 6-3, 240-pound frame and logging long hours in the film room. Grace said the next step in his development is learning how to recognize the small things opponents do to show their hand before the play. Being able to predict where a play might be heading makes linebackers faster, which is something Grace’s predecessor was known to do quite well.
“We’re talking about attacking players and attacking formations, formations specifically,” Diaco said. “Now we’re at that next level of, hey, here’s the different things that happen from this particular formation. Here are the things that you can eliminate that are not going to happen. Because of those things we’re getting much faster play from those guys.”
Grace said a big part of playing faster is being able to communicate with the rest of the defense. That will be another big focus in the coming months during the team’s seven-on-seven drills and workouts without coaches. The added experience of learning what it takes to stay on the same page as the rest of the defense during the Blue-Gold Game should help Grace and his other young teammates prepare this summer.