Brian Kelly looked at the video board during the Friday pep rally and knew there was more for Jarrett Grace. The fifth-year senior linebacker spoke to the crowd the night before Notre Dame’s home date with Navy, but his season highlights were limited to special teams.
Grace was Notre Dame’s latest Next Man In when he replaced James Onwualu at halftime to give the Irish more bulk against the triple option. Not only did Grace finish with five tackles, Navy finished the second half with just 79 yards rushing, no touchdowns and no red zone trips.
For Grace, whose brutal broken leg suffered two years ago seemed likely to end his college career, Saturday marked a real comeback.
“It was incredible,” Grace said. “Just being out there as a linebacker flying around, that was a different element. Being able to celebrate on consecutive plays in a row, that’s what I love about football.”
Grace likely moves back into a reserve role with option football off the table, but both he and Kelly know what they have in the senior.
“It was as meaningful for him as it was for me, just to know what he's gone through and to be called upon to come in and play a very important role for us,” Kelly said. “If you watched him last year in August and September, you'd say there's no way he's going to be able to play again.
“To see him get out there and play on Saturday was pretty gratifying that he could get out there and help us.”
Tillery, Martin Check Out
Jerry Tillery suffered a sprained elbow in the first half against Navy while Nick Martin endured a mild ankle sprain. Both played through that discomfort, which Kelly doesn’t believe will slow either heading toward USC.
“We'll fit (Tillery) for a brace, and he should be fine for practice on Tuesday,” Kelly said. “Nick's got an ankle sprain, but he finished the game.”
Notre Dame has already lost six starters for the season and played without Quenton Nelson against Navy due to a high ankle sprain suffered at Clemson. Nelson was fitted for a walking boot last week and dressed for Saturday but never saw the field. Kelly said the staff would reassess Nelson on Tuesday after practice.
Alex Bars, also a red-shirt freshman, took Nelson’s place, making his first career start.
“I thought Bars, for a first start, he did some pretty good things,” Kelly said. “Missed a linebacker one time on a power, but did a pretty good job overall. His pass protection was solid. He moves well. He's a really good athlete for a big kid. So I would say overall pretty good start.”
Kelly added that Greer Martini played through hip pain.
CJ Prosise continues to battle a sore shoulder. Tyler Luatua returned from a concussion.
“My 1:30 meeting with the doctors has been my most anxious time of the year,” Kelly said. “So the last couple of weeks have been pretty good. Hopefully, we get that trend to continue … that’s going to be helpful as we move into the back end of the season.”
Vote Of Confidence For Regan
Walk-on quarterback Rob Regan might have made two firsts on Saturday. Not only was he the first scout team player Kelly could remember getting a game ball, he was also the first freshman to lead the fight song.
Regan played the part of Navy’s Keenan Reynolds and Georgia Tech’s Justin Thomas this season. It was a natural fit for Regan considering he ran the option at Hinsdale South High School outside Chicago.
Notre Dame discovered Regan while recruiting defensive end Josh King, who committed to Michigan State last summer. Instead of getting that four-star pass rusher, the Irish got a key piece in solving the triple option.
“He's an extremely athletic quarterback,” Kelly said. “And he's good at what he does. So the one thing he's able to do is he makes quick decisions, which forces our defensive players to play fast. So if you have the dive, you have to get down on the dive. If you have the quarterback, you have to get to him quickly.”