SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Rising senior Joe Schmidt had to fight to get on Notre Dame's roster as a walk-on three years ago but now finds himself atop the team's depth chart at inside linebacker.
Part of Schmidt's standing is due to the absence of his primary competition. Notre Dame won't know until early or mid-May if rising senior Jarrett Grace, who's had two surgeries on a broken leg in the last six months, will be able to play in 2014. And incoming freshman Nyles Morgan, a four-star recruit out of Crete-Monee High School, won't join up with the team until the summer.
But a large part of Schmidt's ascendance is due to a universally praised work ethic, a high level of intelligence and some solid play in the latter half of the 2013 season.
"A very intelligent player," summed up defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "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.
"He's just uniquely bright. I'm talking, to the professional league and all, he's a very bright player."
VanGorder knows a good linebacker when he sees one. He coached David Pollack — who Schmidt described as "one of the greatest college football players that I know of" at Georgia, Sean Weatherspoon and Curtis Lofton with the Atlanta Falcons and Calvin Pace with the New York Jets, among others. Schmidt said he's learned a lot from watching film of those guys play in VanGorder's defense and has soaked up the NFL-level wisdom his defensive coordinator has imparted on him this spring.
"It's hard for me to say Joe Schmidt, Curtis Lofton in the same sentence," Schmidt said. "He's obviously an amazing football player, and it's awesome to learn from him and emulate him in ways but also understand that I'm my own football player and I'm trying to do it my way at the same time. But it's cool to learn from someone like that that's run the same schemes."
Schmidt, like many of his teammates, has enjoyed the transition to a more aggressive defense and raved about how good of a teacher VanGorder is. And Schmidt didn't sound worried about what his playing time will look like when Morgan gets to campus and if/when Grace comes back.
That's because with only a few practices left this spring, it sounds as if Schmidt has impressed VanGorder and will likely have a significant role in Notre Dame's defense this fall.
"I think it's been awesome to have that opportunity to learn and grow," Schmidt said. "It's been really nice to get those extra reps especially in a new scheme and you're learning a lot of different things, and seeing different looks from the offense has been nice. I think it's been great, and I'm excited about this kind of opportunity."