Next Manti In?

Maybe not. But junior-to-be Jarrett Grace is ready to end his apprenticeship and fight for the lead role at Mike linebacker.

Quick, who was Cal Ripken's backup in Baltimore? How about Peyton Manning's in Indianapolis? Brett Favre's in Green Bay?

Notre Dame linebacker Jarrett Grace probably can't answer off the top of his head, either, but he knows how Rene Gonzales and Jim Sorgi, and any of Favre's 11 (eleven!) backups likely felt upon their arrival to work each day.

Grace won the No. 2 Mike linebacker role on Notre Dame's 2012 depth chart. In other words, as Manti Te'o's backup, he was the least likely Irish backup to go into a game at any time, at any position, for any reason.

2013 might be a little different.

"Its been easy, just sit back and watch him play," Grace joked from the end zone stands in Sun Life Stadium. "I'm just kidding, you still have to prepare the same way. Coach (Brian) Kelly's philosophy is 'Next Man In.' I've been watching tons of film because you never know what can happen. We've been really fortunate he had such a phenomenal season and career in general.

"I'm really excited about the success he had and the success he will have in the future. But there's some pressure for next year about the guy that's going to fill that role, so we'll see what happens."

That role is between Grace vs. senior Kendall Moore at present, with Grace forging ahead in August camp and maintaining his spot, at least officially, on the depth chart. Incoming freshman Michael Deeb will likely provide a third challenger on the Mike depth chart while the Will 'backers included expected fifth-year returnees Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese again working in tandem.

Unless an outside 'backer is moved inside, the above names represent the team's quintet of Mike and Will bodies on scholarship. (Junior preferred walk-on Joe Schmidt gives the group a sixth practice competitor; Schmidt starts on the kick coverage unit as well.)

"I've backed up Manti at the Mike 'backer all this year so that's primarily what I know," said Grace. "With our coaching style I've picked up some of the (Will) 'backer spot. As of right now though I'm a lot more comfortable at Mike 'backer."

He's comfortable between the lines, too, thanks to a sophomore (redshirt-freshman) season spent covering kicks and punts for the Irish run teams. Grace led the squad in total special teams tackles (12) and tackles in kick coverage (8) finishing second to freshman Nicky Baratti covering punts.

"Its a lot more fun, I'll tell you that," said Grace regarding special teams play in 2012 vs. a season on the scout team in 2011. "Last year was a good year and I learned a lot mentally and physically I grew as well. But this year I feel was a really important year for me, learning the pace of the game. I got my feet wet and learned a lot.

"It's been great to be behind Manti -- he set a good standard of how to live your life, practice, and go about studying and preparing for the other team. I feel like this is a good year for me to have such a fine leader in front of me."

Change awaits in 2013, and if he earns the starting role as expected, Grace's presence on special teams will likely be a thing of the past. He enjoyed the experience as one of the basic forms of the sport.

"You don't have to think too much," Grace noted with a chuckle. "Its you and the guy across from you. You're going to hit him really hard, he's going to hit you really hard, and may the best man win. Its a lot of fun and an ease on the mind. Go down and try to make an impact on the game."

A bigger impact awaits.


IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories