SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- There's no replacing Manti Te'o. That's a prevailing belief across Notre Dame's first spring practice in four years without their former star linebacker, no matter the ignominy that's followed Te'o since January.
But Jarrett Grace is Te'o's replacement. That's how it'll likely look on paper when Notre Dame's depth chart is released next August. And, on paper, it certainly looks like a daunting task for the junior-to-be.
"Those are big shoes to fill, aren’t they?" laughed Grace's father, Joel. "He’s got the right attitude though, and he works really hard. (Defensive coordinator Bob) Diaco’s happy with his performance and how he’s developing."
Joel Grace has seen his son be a leader on the football field for years, dating all the way back to when he son played in middle school and high school in Cincinnati. Grace's teammates say he's already stepped into that leadership role vacated by Te'o, a transition made easier by the respect he built up playing a special teams role in 2012. When asked about filling the leadership void left by Te'o's departure, those around the program quickly come up with Grace's name as part of the group filling that gap.
"Jarrett’s one of the most positive people on the team, always supporting everybody else, always encouraging, and that’s what you need (from) a middle linebacker at any level," safety Matthias Farley said. "Jarrett knows the past couple years his role wasn’t (to be) on the field all the time, but you could still feel his presence and hear him out there all the time. He’s definitely a huge asset to have."
"Jarrett’s been great," linebacker Carlo Calabrese added. "He’s a hard player, he goes 110 percent every play, runs to the ball every play, brings a lot of energy to the team."
Diaco prefers to rebuild his defensive unit every year, not trying to replace any specific player while keeping the same identity. That's something Grace said has has helped him transition to a larger role, one he doesn't feel comes with a burden of expectations.
"He talks about the defense as a whole, he doesn’t talk about individuals -- even though we had a great individual performer last year," Grace said. "But we’re definitely more concerned with team production, team results. I’m really just concerned with mastering everything about the Mike linebacker position, and when opportunities present, hopefully I can seize those opportunities."
Grace is quick to point out he hasn't been handed anything yet, and while he certainly appears on track to be Notre Dame's No. 1 Mike linebacker on Aug. 31, there's still plenty of time separating early April and late August. Calabrese has the versatility to slide between the Mike and Will inside linebacker spots, while Diaco and coach Brian Kelly have mentioned Kendall Moore's name on a few occasions when asked about the Mike position.
While some level of competition may exist, Grace is hungry to win the job. There's a reason why Te'o addressed Grace as his successor last year, while the senior captain was in the midst of being the centerpiece of an undefeated team.
"He was definitely a mentor figure to me in that regard. And a lot of times he spoke to me and said, alright, when it’s your time, when you’re in this role," Grace recalled about Te'o. "So we had a lot of those type of talks, he definitely guided me while he was here. He instilled a lot of confidence in me even though I was taking that backseat role, he was still helping me out, still helping me improve my game."
Grace tried to pick up on Te'o's work habits, which involved plenty of film study. That's how Grace thinks Te'o was able to have seven interceptions last season, by coupling good instincts with in-depth knowledge of opposing offenses.
Not only has Grace been a hawk in the film room, but he also added 13 pounds in between the BCS Championship and beginning of spring practice. That's something he's proud of after coming to campus as a self-described beanpole, and it's something that has Diaco salivating.
"He doesn't have an ounce of fat on him, so who knows how big he can be?" Diaco said rhetorically. "He's got good speed and good change of direction. Intangibly he's got a great sense for where the ball's gonna end up. He's got a good feel in coverage, he's got a good feel for fitting the runs, so we're excited about what we have there.
"There's really not a negative to say right now about Grace."
Grace isn't trying to replicate anything Te'o did in terms of production, and Diaco isn't trying to replicate anything his 2012 defense did in terms of identity, either. Te'o is gone, along with Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter. Grace is part of that new recipe, and Diaco doesn't see any benefit to trying to be like last year's product.
"You're making a cake, a sweet vanilla cake. But you run out of vanilla and you decide to put chili powder in there. It's a completely different cake," Diaco explained in a rather sublime analogy. "It tastes nothing like you expect it to. In fact, you might not even like it. But everything else was the same, and you took the same care.
"One interjection of one new person creates a totally different dynamic that, if you don't pay attention, then you're gonna lose sight, you're not gonna have a chance to define who you are," he continued in far less abstract terms. "So we're gonna define who we are -- I don't mean me, I mean our defensive unit, all the coaches and all the players. So it's a new thing every single year as we put the unit back together."
Still, whether Grace is chili powder, vanilla, frosting or whatever Diaco has an appetite for when talking to the media, keeping the same principles of what Te'o did is important. The consistency, accountability and trust Te'o built are all things Notre Dame wants to see out of Grace in 2013.
"He’s loud, he has a motor that doesn’t stop, he’s very fundamentally (sound), he’s on his assignments all the time," Farley said. "When you have a middle linebacker who’s on his business at all times and you know he’s going to give you everything, it makes everybody a lot more comfortable."
Grace's dad never coached his son, and only generally offers him advice in broad terms. One of those bits of advice, though, was to take bits and pieces of veteran teammates' games and mold them into his own style. Grace is not the next Te'o, and he doesn't think he has to be.
"I’m not really worried about that. I’m just worried about improving upon my skills," Grace said. "I feel like coach Diaco’s going to put in the right players in the right situations, so I’m definitely just going to try to master the Mike position, cover all the fundamentals so when I have the opportunity to play, I can seize the opportunity and do the best I can."
Te'o was the guy for Notre Dame's defense in 2012, the physical and emotional leader for a unit that carried the Irish to the BCS Championship. No matter how much Grace, his teammates and coaches talk about not replacing Te'o, ultimately, Grace wants to be the guy to power Notre Dame's defense to its next shot at glory.
Grace's father is sure of that.
"He wants that challenge to be able to lead the defense," he said.