Joe Schmidt may not have the talent of Nyles Morgan or the experience of Jarrett Grace, but coaches are confident the leadership he brings to a young Irish defense will be invaluable this coming fall.
Schmidt, a rising senior inside linebacker, emerged from the ranks of Notre Dame's walk-ons to earn a scholarship prior to the 2013 season — then wound up playing an important role for the Irish after Grace broke his leg in Week 6. His presence becomes more important this year as one of Notre Dame's few seniors on defense, and coach Brian Kelly said that'll be a reason why Schmidt will see a good amount of playing time.
"Joe Schmidt is the leader on our defense," Kelly said. "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."
Added defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder earlier this month: "Right now he's operating the entire defense, from a communicative standpoint, so he's doing a great job there. He's getting better respective to his scheme — right place, right fits. He's doing a very good job."
Notre Dame has other options at inside linebacker, though, that'll push Schmidt for playing time.
If Grace is able to return from his broken leg — on which he's had two surgeries — he very well may start, given the experience and development he had while healthy in 2013. Morgan, though an incoming freshman, has loads of talent and could very well work his way into a playing rotation. And Notre Dame is keen on shifting Jaylon Smith inside largely as part of its sub packages, too.
Schmidt, Kelly admitted, doesn't have the talent of those three guys. And there will be game situations that'll relegate Schmidt to the sidelines. But he'll have a chance to make an impact one way or another, given how important his knowledge base is at that Mike linebacker position.
"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 said. "But right now, as a communicator, as a leader on our defense, he's emerged in the spring."