Village Voice

Village Voice

Linebacker Joe Schmidt had plenty of help in his journey from preferred walk-on status as a freshman in 2011 to clear-cut starter in the middle of the Irish defense entering his senior season. He plans to pay those favors forward this August and throughout the fall.

One high school senior, we'll call him "Linebacker A," was bestowed five-star status as an indication of his collegiate potential. The other high school senior, "Linebacker B," was not rated, period.

Linebacker A was a prospect that would have been given a scholarship by any university that possessed one. The other, Linebacker B, was offered full rides as well -- two of them, to be exact -- from The Air Force Academy and Cincinnati.

Together, Linebacker A and B will drive the Notre Dame defense this fall. A is a sophomore, already a veteran of 13 starts, the number representing every game of his collegiate career to date.

B? A senior, a scholarship athlete since the outset of his junior season after two years spent as a *preferred walk-on (*he did not have to tryout) with the Irish program.

Linebacker A, aka Jaylon Smith, dotted every defensive pre-season award watch list known to man this summer. Linebacker B dots the middle of new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense, and it would be an upset of epic proportions if Joe Schmidt, heretofore known as Linebacker B, doesn't make his starting debut when Notre Dame opens its season against the Rice Owls on August 30.

Together, A and B will lead Notre Dame's new look defense into a new era.

"Joe Schmidt is a leader on our defense," head coach Brian Kelly offered following spring ball's conclusion. "You know, there's no one probably that has the kind of leadership and understanding of our defense than Joe has right now. Right now he can't come off the field. His knowledge base in terms of getting people lined up and having them execute what we do defensively, he's absolutely integral to what we're doing."

It remains as such in early August. Smith the natural leader and star-in-the-making; Schmidt the leader and starter-in-waiting.

"Me and Joe, we work great together," said Smith of his defensive co-pilot. "For us, it's communication and accountability. Letting each other know everything we see. That's something that I admire and take from Joe. It's how you get better."

It's how Schmidt got better, first from absorbing everything Manti Te'o had to offer in 2011 and 2012, and later, everything classmate and 2013 starter Jarrett Grace shared last fall -- both before and after Grace lost half of his season, the winter, spring, and most of summer 2014 to a severe compound fracture in his lower leg and multiple surgeries thereafter.

Now, Schmidt and Grace are competing for the same role, though the latter appears several weeks away from full activation.

"Even today, I came off the field and I talked to Jarrett for about two minutes every time," Schmidt noted after Notre Dame's initial practice of August camp. "We did that all the time last year, too. It's how we operate, how we roll."

Brave New World

Schmidt enjoyed mid-season success (and a game-winning pass breakup, pictured above) last season replacing Grace as the lone linebacker in Notre Dame's dime defensive package (six defensive backs, usually on third down). That role isn't similar to what he faces for 2014 as a much-needed rock and (nearly) every down player inside. He's far from a finished product and knows ample work on his own game remains, but Schmidt also relishes the opportunity to mentor the myriad young 'backers that populate the defensive unit.

"It's my job, as a senior, as someone that's been here, it's my job to bring along some of these younger players so that they can help us, because, we're going to need everybody in some facet," said Schmidt. "I'm focusing on tomorrow's practice for me, because when I'm in, that's the most important thing, to make sure I'm playing up to the best of my abilities, but at the same time, when I come off, and somebody has a question, I'm always available."

Five pounds heavier than last season (235 lbs.) and a shade over six-feet tall, Schmidt used the off-season to add, in Brian Kelly parlance, a coat of armor to his undersized frame.

"I tried to get a little bit bigger, to prepare myself for the physical role I'll embrace this year," said Schmidt. "Then at the same time, when we're in practice, I'm trying to get everyone in the right spots -- guys that are younger than me in my position, but also other positions as well."

The assumption that Schmidt is all brains and football acumen and void of athletic gifts is as predictable as it is inaccurate. While he might not be a straight-line burner, he's quick-footed enough to read, react, and burst to the ball against modern spread offenses. And while he doesn't possess his position-mate Smith's other-worldly athleticism, Schmidt's natural hand-eye coordination appears superior to that of the majority of inside 'backers that funnel through major college programs.

(Spring interceptions and the occasional Pick Six were the order of the day in media practice viewings.)

Maybe that's why his opening practice "highlight" still stung when the session concluded.

"Oh my gosh. I want the play back SO bad," Schmidt said after breaking on an Everett Golson pass offering that, had he secured it in his outstretched hands, would have resulted in an interception touchdown. "I'm frustrated. There's a few other plays that mentally I know what I need to do, but it's still about getting the rust out. You know exactly where you need to be on a play, but you're a step slow because you haven't seen it in six months. That happens. For the most part, we're trying to eradicate that for the next practice and start flying around the ball."

Schmidt will get to the ball and ball carrier this season, the key is what happens over a 12-game, 14-week span upon impact.

"Joe is not 255 pounds, and if the game is a downhill ISO-game, we're going to have to be cognizant of what his shortcomings are," Kelly admitted.

And therein lies the question: Can Schmidt hold the fort inside for three months? He might have to, because Grace could be limited athletically for the bulk of 2014 -- or at least through the season's opening month -- and five-star prospect Nyles Morgan will be challenged to pick up the system, much less run the show as a rookie inside.

If Grace recovers, and if Morgan and redshirt-freshman middle 'backer Michael Deeb continue their ascent, Schmidt could find much-needed respite over the gauntlet that awaits. Regardless, he's thrilled to have emerged from student-athlete status to student-athlete-starter.

"I'm so excited about this camp, what we're going to do the next couple of weeks," said Schmidt. "I'm excited about the meetings, about putting on the pads Saturday (Aug. 9). The opportunity to start gelling as a unit. It's a blast."

The real fun -- and 12 to 13 tests en route to the season's final grade -- awaits.

<Click here to join our Football Forum discussion regarding Schmidt and his new role).

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