SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Two-hundred and fifty-three players will hear their name called from the start of the NFL Draft Thursday night to the end of it Saturday afternoon. Notre Dame is expected to have a strong showing in Chicago, with Ronnie Stanley and Will Fuller possible first-round picks and potentially a total of 10 players drafted.
Jarrett Grace probably won’t be one of them. Nearly every player who doesn't get an invitation to the NFL Combine -- as was the case with Grace -- goes undrafted. But that doesn’t mean the former Irish linebacker is ready to give up a football career he worked so hard to get back.
“To me, this is a dream,” Grace said after Notre Dame’s pro day last month. “As a little kid, I wore a Dan Marino jersey for probably three Halloweens in a row, then I transitioned to a Ricky Williams jersey for a couple years and then I became a Bengals fan. I actually have a (Tyler) Eifert jersey in my closet right now. This is where I’ve always wanted to be, just to have the opportunity.”
Grace was forced to work out with Notre Dame’s defensive backs at pro day given he was the only healthy linebacker participating in it (Jaylon Smith, of course, did not participate in on-field drills). The Cincinnati native joked after pro day that he’d be willing to play safety — “I’ll channel my inner John Lynch or Harrison Smith,” he said — or, really, anywhere on the field if it meant he got a shot in the NFL.
“Are you kidding me? I wouldn’t say no. I’d play left guard,” Grace said. “I’ll do whatever they want me to do.”
To understand Grace’s desire to continue playing football, one has to go back to the debilitating broken leg he suffered Oct. 5, 2013 against Arizona State at AT&T Stadium in Texas. The guy who was Manti Te’o’s heir apparent in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 scheme — and who was starting to play better right before his injury — underwent two surgeries on his leg in the following six months.
Watching Grace awkwardly amble around Notre Dame’s practice fields in August of 2014 was difficult to watch; he had to completely re-learn his foot strike when it came to running. When jogging, he moved like one of his legs was shorter than the other. He remained sidelined for the entire 2014 season.
When Grace was cleared to play again, he no longer had a starting spot in Notre Dame’s defense, which shifted to Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 scheme during his absence. Joe Schmidt was too important a player to take off the field, so Grace had to compete with Nyles Morgan for backup reps.
Where Grace did make an impact in 2015 was in an October game against Navy. With the Mids’ fullbacks gouging the Irish defense in the first half, Notre Dame inserted Grace for the final two quarters and, thanks to his physical, downhill presence, largely shut down Navy’s triple option in a 41-24 win.
Grace got one final chance at the college level in the Fiesta Bowl, though it came at the expense of Smith, who suffered that devastating ACL and LCL tear that came with the added blow of nerve damage, which seems to have scared most NFL teams away from using an early-round pick on the once-promising linebacker. After Smith’s replacement, Te’von Coney, suffered a shoulder injury, Grace got the call off the bench to slide in at Will linebacker, a position he hadn’t previously played a whole lot.
As much as Grace wanted it, a sixth year of eligibility was never an option under the NCAA’s rules. So there Grace was at pro day, working with Notre Dame’s defensive backs and hoping to impress an NFL team enough to bring him in, either as an undrafted free agent or for a tryout.
Grace feels like he still has a lot of football left to be played after losing one and a half years to that broken leg. Even if he’s running through drills during a rookie minicamp or gets a shot at training camp come the summer, he’s going to relish and take full advantage of the opportunities provided to him.
“As long as I have my health and can do it, I love it,” Grace said. “To be honest, I catch myself just smiling — like, what the heck, get this grin off my face — because, it may sound so silly, but I really just feel like a big puppy dog running around out there. I love it.
“A lot of my buddies, they call me Wild Man Grace because I love the game. Just running around and especially seeing your brothers compete and succeed, that to me, that’s what it’s all about. Taking yourself to a place where it’s uncomfortable and where you can do special things. I love being a part of that. If I’m not the one doing it, just being a proponent for other people to do it. That’s what drives me.”