Jarrett Grace led the line Wednesday morning, sprinting to the front of spring practice’s opening period.
Those minutes, basically calisthenics with a soundtrack, were the linebacker’s first as a normal football player in nearly 18 months.
What set Grace back was nationally televised, his right leg demolished in the Shamrock Series by a falling Arizona State lineman. What’s kept Grace out this long has had less definition, the surgeries, the cane, the metal rod, the perpetually optimistic updates from Brian Kelly that never seemed to stick.
Grace lost the rest of that season. And the next spring. And all of last fall.
But there the 6-foot-3, 252-pound linebacker was last week. stretching, sprinting, cutting, looking like a story that will get a natural end on Saturday afternoons this fall.
“The most amazing thing is he’s got no fear,” said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. “Most guys coming off something like that would go out there and be a little bit apprehensive, not him. Not him.”
Before spring practice started, Kelly said Grace had been cleared for contact. With some of that contact now in the books, the senior middle linebacker remains fit to fight, taking on both offensive linemen and competition for reps.
On opening day Grace worked with the second-team defense, repping behind starter Nyles Morgan. Joe Schmidt will miss spring following a broken leg and dislocated ankle suffered against Navy last season. VanGorder expects all three to play this season, with Grace’s football IQ falling between Schmidt and Morgan.
“I can say (Grace) is very bright; Joe was exceptional,” VanGorder said. “All Jarrett did was study all year. He didn’t waste time. He was studying the game and studying our system.
“I anticipate that he’ll be very similar to Joe in terms of checks and communication needed and reloads of the defense and all the things a middle linebacker’s gotta do. I think he’ll hold up very well to all that.”
Publicly, Grace was nothing more than a long-running injury update last season. At points Kelly was optimistic the senior could actually play. Then the head coach spent press conferences talking about foot strike and body mechanics. Fending off cut blocks felt a world away.
Privately, Grace remained in meetings, acting like a player who might get green lit by the medical staff at any moment. He took notes. He could answer questions. He stayed engaged when there was every reason to check out.
“I’ve never seen a guy more locked in during a year that he knew he was not gonna play,” said linebackers coach Mike Elston. “He was in the front row every single day, listening to the coaching points, he could answer the questions as fast as the guys out there getting reps.”
Those answers are no longer theoretical as Grace battles Morgan and Schmidt for reps. A player who could have been a captain last season if healthy must beat out last year’s MVP and a freshman All-American. And while VanGorder said all three will play, the linebacker positions have rarely rotated under Kelly.
Schmidt will cross-train at WILL, which is only a path to playing time if Jaylon Smith moves to SAM, where VanGorder said he’d get some work in coming weeks.
VanGorder doesn’t see having three options at middle linebacker as changing Notre Dame’s defense, although it’s a luxury after last spring’s mess. A year ago Schmidt was still better known for being a former walk-on, Morgan was in high school and Grace looked like he might never play again. That was it for the position.
“Nyles gained experience last year, so going into his second year will feel much better with him,” VanGorder said. “Between Joe and Jarrett, you’ve got great leadership that can manage and run a defense. I expect all three of them to play a lot.”
Regardless of how much Grace plays this fall, the fact it’s a possibility should boost the roster. His rehab has run long enough that Notre Dame’s entire defensive staff turned over during it.
“I see Jarrett Grace of old with how he’s moving,” Elston said. “He’s never really been an elite athlete like a Jaylon Smith. What he’s lacked in that, he’s made up in his grit, competitiveness and knowledge of the offense and knowledge of the defense he’s playing. All that stuff is starting to come out.”