Optimistic Schmidt eagerly looks ahead

Schmidt is excited about the depth that was built as a result of the multitude of injuries on defense. The players on his side of the football not only are more experienced, but also have a much better understanding of defensive football under Brian VanGorder.

Through it all, the smile has never faded.

The beacon of light that is Irish linebacker Joe Schmidt was beaming outside the Notre Dame locker room at LP Field in Nashville following the 31-28 victory over LSU in the Dec. 30 Music City Bowl.

“I would have loved to have played in this game,” said Schmidt, two months removed from suffering a season-ending ankle injury.

“This was a great game, a linebacker’s game. They did it (in place of) me. They did a great job.”

The light that shines from Schmidt’s spirit is as bright as it’s ever been with the next step in his recovery on tap. By next weekend, Schmidt – still leaning on crutches after Notre Dame’s upset victory over the Tigers – will be cleared by Notre Dame’s medical staff to begin walking on the left ankle that was fractured and dislocated early in the second half of the Nov. 1 Navy game.

“My next date, if I’m allowed to say, is I can put my full weight on it on Jan. 10,” Schmidt said. “I’m so excited. I want to walk right now. That’s my next goal. I’ve got a bunch of little ones. I’m just excited about walking. I’m moving my ankle more and seeing how the motion gets back in that thing.”

Schmidt, who finished third on the team in tackles with 65 despite missing the last five-and-a-half games, says he literally can feel his left ankle healing, which has him contemplating Notre Dame’s return to the field for spring practice in March.

“My surgery went awesome,” Schmidt said. “They did a great job on it. Everything is healing up great. (Head football athletic trainer) Rob Hunt and his staff have done an excellent job. No (setbacks). I’ve tried to be pretty smart about it, but at the same time being aggressive in my treatments.

“My personal goal is to try to be mobile -- running around -- in spring football and trying to get back in the swing of things. I think that’s a realistic goal.”

Schmidt -- a picture of optimism every time he’s met with the media, even after the injury – admitted to some tough times along the way.

“Obviously, losing is not something you want to do,” Schmidt said. “When you’re losing, nothing tastes right, the colors aren’t as bright, you don’t want to hang out with your friends…You’re just in a surly, upset mood all the time, so righting the ship (against LSU) was important to us.

“It was also tough in that I was trying to help any way that I could, but it was difficult with an injury. There was all kind of adversity, and I think we responded extremely well. I’m so proud of the guys on the team. I’m just proud to be a member of this.”

Schmidt has had a close eye on the Irish depth chart during his two months of inactivity. With offensive tackle Christian Lombard, tight end Ben Koyack, cornerback Cody Riggs, safety Austin Collinsworth, running back Cam McDaniel and kicker/punter Kyle Brindza the only players out of eligibility among the front-line performers, Schmidt is effusively optimistic.

“I’m so excited about that prospect, (provided) they invite me back for my fifth year,” said the self-deprecating Schmidt. “The guys that we have coming back, just look at the depth chart, it’s amazing the depth that we have.

“We had a lot of guys get quality reps, especially towards the end of the season. There are so many guys that can play. I’m excited about what the future could bring. I’ve got high hopes.”

What was once a young, inexperienced and – by the end of the season – injury-ravaged unit will have a much different look come spring, summer and fall.

“Now we’ve got a lot of experience, which is great,” Schmidt said. “We’ve learned so much about scheme and how to play defense. For a bunch of young guys, that’s great.

“(The LSU game) put on display how tight our brotherhood is and how much we wanted to play for each other and win for the guys that aren’t going to be back. That was something special, too.”

Asked to speculate on anticipating his return to the field, Schmidt closes his eyes briefly, picturing the joy that comes to him on the gridiron.

“Oh, my gosh, I’m excited about that,” Schmidt beamed. “The thought of that gives me butterflies just thinking about it. I can’t wait for that to happen, and God willing, I’ll be able to get back on the field. I’m really excited.”

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