Jarrett Grace lights up when he talks about the 2015 season, his fifth at Notre Dame.
A potential sixth year – due to a catastrophic leg injury during the 2013 season that forced him to miss 20 games over two seasons – isn’t going to happen.
“I will not be able to get (a sixth year),” said Grace Monday from Notre Dame’s Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
“I’ve talked to the compliance office, and I didn’t know this, but the way the NCAA works, if you don’t qualify to such standards, you’re not even allowed to apply. So based upon some technicalities, I will not be able to apply.”
Nothing can take the gloss off the 2015 season for Grace, who fought the long journey back from a leg broken in four places.
“As much as that stinks, it hasn’t affected me all year,” Grace beamed. “I’ve been all bought in for this fifth go-round.”
That fifth season – as a significant member of the Irish special teams and a situational player at key moments during the regular season – saw Grace record 17 tackles while also playing an integral role on Notre Dame’s blocked punt against USC that led to a touchdown.
It was Grace who helped obliterated the Trojans’ blocking wedge, which freed up Equanimeous St. Brown for the blocked punt and allowed Amir Carlisle to scoop-and-score.
“Oh, man, physically, I am better,” said Grace, reflecting on his progress since the injury.
“I feel so much stronger, faster, everything. When I’m on the field, I feel great. I don’t even think about it. I think of myself as an athlete. That’s just a testament to these guys in the weight room and the training room. They’ve been working with me non-stop.”
But the Mike linebacker position belonged to Joe Schmidt, one of the captains of the 2015 squad, Grace’s best friend on the team, and a mainstay on the ’14 defense before suffering his own season-ending injury in the eighth game of the year against Navy.
That meant that Grace had to be satisfied with his role on special teams, his substitution for Sam linebacker James Onwualu in the Navy game when the Irish needed some bulk to defend the triple option, and a half-sack in the 11th game against Boston College.
“Just to take the field, and the memories I made this year, you can’t place a value on that,” Grace said. “What else would I have been doing? Would I have been working? Would I have been twiddling my thumbs, missing Notre Dame?
“No, I am totally glad I made the decision to return and just be a part of this amazing team, and we have one last time to take the field together.”
For the Cincinnati native, that one last time will come against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl. Grace wasn’t offered a scholarship by the in-state Buckeyes until well into his recruitment by Notre Dame.
“(Ohio State) didn’t have as much interest in me as Notre Dame, so that was a no-brainer when they offered,” Grace said. “They came in later and said, ‘What do you think about us?’ I was like, ‘No, I’m going to this place. This is ideal, this is my dream.’ So good school, great program, but nothing to compete with Notre Dame.
“They were never my No. 1 team. You root for them, but not now. I love my state and I’ll do anything for it, but Notre Dame is head and shoulders ahead of any of that.”
Grace admits there were times when his imagination allowed him to consider what might have been had he not suffered the injury mid-2013.
“That’s never good to do, the what-if scenario,” Grace said. “But I’d be lying if I said I never did because you have this dream world of how things work out.
“Replaying that situation, if I got hurt or didn’t get hurt, Notre Dame was the No. 1 choice regardless. It actually made my choice even sounder with the injury.
“Just to have that support with everybody rallying around me, it was like, ‘Man, I didn’t know what I was doing when I was 18-years-old, but this was great foresight to make a decision like this.’”