Manti Te'o's exit from Notre Dame was hardly smooth. It began with a drubbing by Alabama in the BCS Championship in which the Heisman runner up didn't make an impact, then it dove into the depths of ignominy with the whole Lennay Kekua saga.
Notre Dame has to be hoping the transition from Te'o to its next Mike linebacker goes better than that. No matter what happened after Te'o played his final game in a Notre Dame uniform, though, he leaves massive void not only in skill, but also in leadership.
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Perhaps the Irish could slide either Dan Fox -- who will miss spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery in January -- or Carlo Calabrese from the Will to Mike spot in the team's 3-4 defense, although that tandem was effective alongside Te'o in 2012. For now, sophomore Jarrett Grace will have a chance to make himself Te'o's heir.
Rated by Rivals as a three-star linebacker out of Colerain High School in Cincinnati, Grace has neither the blue-chip pedigree nor hype that Te'o brought with him to campus in 2009. But while Te'o was away from South Bend on the awards circuit last December, Grace had an extended chance to impress Notre Dame coaches, and did just that.
Coach Brian Kelly singled out Grace as a player who caught his eye just before Notre Dame left for South Florida in December. Grace won't win a job this spring -- no players in position battles will -- but he can lay the foundation to be a key contributor on Notre Dame's defense with a solid showing over the next month.
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Replacing Te'o's leadership is something that won't be put on Grace, if he wins the job -- it'll come from other positions, most likely at defensive tackle where the loud, affable Louis Nix resides. Even without Te'o and fellow 2012 mainstays Kapron Lewis-Moore and Zeke Motta, Notre Dame's defense looks strong for 2013. If Grace gets a starting nod, there won't be much pressure on him to replace Te'o's production, either.
Notre Dame very well could go to Calabrese or Fox at Mike linebacker next fall. But if Grace is going to make a run at winning a No. 1 spot on the Irish depth chart, it's a process that'll get underway in the next two weeks.