Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly's promise of increased depth last spring has materialized this fall, with no better example than that of his defense's six defensive back, or "dime" package.
With two dime package regulars, safety Elijah Shumate and linebacker Jarrett Grace out of the lineup due to injury, and a third from September, Sheldon Day, still working his way back, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco called upon his reserves: a former walk-on, Joe Schmidt, freshman cornerback Devin Butler, and sophomore defensive end Romeo Okwara, to get USC's offense off the field on third down.
Along with Stephon Tuitt, Prince Shembo, Ishaq Williams, Matthias Farley, Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson, Cole Luke and Keivarae Russell, they did so -- each time they were they were called upon.
"Sometimes the pass rush has something to do with it," said Kelly of the stark difference between his dime defense vs. the Trojans and the unit's struggles in September. "I think we've gotten a better pass rush out of that look. We've mixed that up a little bit…that front four is a little bit different than what it was in September.
"Romeo is at the three-technique (inside in a four-man front) now. Not that he's made that significant difference, but we've changed up that group a little bit. I think we've mixed up the coverages. And those guys got a little bit more experience out there now. They're as a unit growing together, as we move deeper into the season. And I think that we've gotten some better pressure."
The lone inside linebacker, or "Buck" in the dime package, Schmidt made two crucial plays to help end USC threats, executing a diving tackle on 3rd and 14 to limit the Trojans to nine yards, then on the Trojan's penultimate play, delivering the hit of the evening, a 3rd and 8 shot on USC tight end Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick, jarring the ball loose to force a fourth down on which the Irish defense -- in the dime -- won again.
The fact that the 6'0" 230-pound Schmidt was in the game at such a meaningful juncture was fortuitous for Irish fans, not to mention the coaching staff.
"We'd like him bigger, faster; we'd like him stronger, but we knew putting Joe Schmidt in the game, he was not going to get us beat," said Kelly of Schmidt's ascent to the lone linebacker role in the dime package after Grace's October 5 injury. "And that's the mark of the 'Next Man In.' And he continuously works on getting stronger and getting faster, but at the same time, he was getting smarter as a football player.
"You saw a couple of plays that he made. We got fished out of the dig route twice late in the game on the last drive. They hit (Nelson) Agholor on the dig. They came back to it again with the tight end, and you know Joe saw it coming…and came back out of his front side curl and broke on the ball. Just those little things, he's a football player. And we knew that about Joe Schmidt that if you put him in the game, he was not going to get you beat because he was a smart football player."
Schmidt has had less than six quarters and 20 snaps as the team's dime 'backer. Saturday night's grade ranks somewhere between an A and and A-plus for he and the unit.
"I was looking right, I looked back at the quarterback (Cody Kessler), saw him looking left," said Schmidt of his first career pass breakup. "His eyes were huge. I knew he was going to throw it there. I broke and thank God I got there in time."
Schmidt, a preferred walk-on during his first two seasons in South Bend that played exclusively (and often) on special teams, has carved a niche in a unique scrimmage role.
"We really want to get off the field," he said of a personnel grouping that usually enters in advantageous down-and-distance situations. "That's the goal when you're out there. You always want to help the D get off the field and give our offense another chance.
"We embrace what we're doing, understand our assignments and our roles. Guys are starting to gel and click. A lot of things contribute to our success, but a lot of it has to do with mindset, how we're approaching and how we're preparing. I think we did a great job but still need to improve it."
Kelly's offering that the staff prefers its linebackers "bigger, stronger, and faster" during recruitment cost Schmidt's family four semesters of Notre Dame tuition. Despite (according to the database) offers from both Air Force and Cincinnati out of Mater Dei High School, (Santa Ana, Calif.), Schmidt chose to fulfill a childhood dream and play football under the Golden Dome.
"You really have to consider that kind of opportunity," he said of FBS scholarship offers. "It's a lot of money to ask your parents to pay. Some might say it's unnecessary to make them do that. But I talked at length with my dad for a few months, maybe even a year. It just turned out to be the best decision for me. I think there was a few schools I had to seriously consider, but at the end of the day it came back to Notre Dame.
"Being a Notre Dame fan. Once that bug bites you, there's really no turning back."
Schmidt traveled with the team (ahead of more than 10 scholarship players) but did not play as a freshman in 2011. He recorded six tackles over the final 10 games of 2012 as a starter on kick coverage. He leads the unit this fall with nine stops.
Said Kelly of Schmidt in October 2011, his freshman season when the walk-on first appeared on the team's travel roster: "He's a good player. Tough, physical, got a great sense for the ball. He's just in a tough position (inside linebacker), but he's going to play for us. That guy is going to be on the field. He's a football player. I like that kid."
Irish fans now doubtless feel the same.