Vote of Confidence

Senior Jarrett Grace -- out of action since October 5, 2013 -- joins rising sophomore Jaylon Smith as one of two Notre Dame players on the 2014 Butkus Watch list.

His 2013 season ended in Arlington, Texas, on the pristine turf of Cowboys Stadium, his tibia and fibula broken in multiple places.

Eight months, a missed spring session, and two surgeries later, Irish senior linebacker Jarrett Grace had impressed his head coach enough that Brian Kelly embraced an all-systems-go approach to his senior's recovery plan.

Grace wants to play vs. Rice in the season opener. Kelly is on board.

We’re going to be very, very aggressive with him over the next two to three weeks," Kelly offered when the team began summer practices in June. "We’re going full-go for him to be ready for Rice (August 31). He wants to do it that way. It’s the best I’ve seen him mentally. He was in a tough spot a little bit before the (second) surgery. It was good to see him in good spirits today.

"We’re going to be very aggressive with him. Let him go. I think if we went slow with him it would put him in jeopardy for being ready for maybe about the first three or four weeks and that’s not what he wants. We’re going to go at it and hope for the best."

Irisheyes.com caught up with Grace shortly thereafter at a summer service event near campus.

“Coming back after winter break with the slush on the ground after a tough South Bend winter was hard,” Grace said. “I was just trudging to class and trying to walk. I couldn’t really make it on time because I had my big boots on. I was just thinking ‘How can I keep doing this?’. But eventually after coming to class every day covered in sweat and breathing hard I realized that if could make it to class like that every day, then I could overcome any rehab.

“I feel like other people should be worried about me because I have metal in my leg now,” Grace joked. “I am bringing metal onto the field so other players should be scared.”

Butkus Committee members apparently agree, as Grace is one of two Irish 'backers to be named to the prestigious award's 2014 watch list, joining omni-present sophomore Jaylon Smith as nominees.

Most Decorated -- Before it Counts

Smith's outstanding freshman season of 2013 was well-documented among most that cover the Irish on a daily basis. His efforts apparently did not go unnoticed nationally, either.

Smith today joined his elder teammate Grace on the pre-season Butkus Watch List. The precocious inside 'backer has already this summer been recognized by a pair of defensive player of the year award watch lists, the Nagurski and Bednarik Award committees.

Two years ago, Irish senior linebacker Manti Te'o claimed all three awards, adding the Walter Camp, Maxwell, and Lombardi trophies along the way. Smith has likewise staked pre-season claim to the latter award, earning a spot on the Lombardi watch list along with senior center Nick Martin. Martin was previously named to the Rimington Trophy watch list, presented annually to the nation's top center.

The Lombardi award recognizes the nation's top interior lineman, currently defined as "down linemen, end-to-end, either on offense or defense, who set up no farther than 10 yards to the left or right of the ball, or linebackers who set up no farther than five yards deep from the line of scrimmage."

To date, Smith, Martin, and Grace are joined by Irish teammates Kyle Brindza (Lou Groza), Sheldon Day (Outland), Everett Golson (Maxwell), Ben Koyack (John Mackey), and Keivarae Russell (Nagurski, Bednarik) as pre-season watch list nominees.

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