CULVER, Ind. — Joe Schmidt didn’t immediately believe his ankle was broken and dislocated as he kneeled on the sidelines last November at FedEx Field.
The linebacker was giving freshman Nyles Morgan some coaching pointers on Navy's triple option and figured he only had a sprained ankle — that is, until he felt his ankle slip out of place and dislocate. He popped his ankle back in, and soon after, it slipped back out. It was at that point Schmidt realized his injury was more serious than a sprain.
“I was like, there’s no way my ankle is broken,” Schmidt said. “It hurt worse than anything I ever felt, but I didn’t believe it when I felt it.”
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How bad was the pain?
“White-hot, searing pain in your leg,” Schmidt recalled. “And then it just doesn’t feel fully connected to your body, which is weird. So your whole foot and ankle are throbbing and killing. It feels like someone either shot or stabbed you several times.”
The injury sidelined Schmidt for the rest of Notre Dame’s season — the Irish went 1-4 in his absence — and prevented him from taking part in contact drills during spring practice. The graduate student was cleared for contact in late May, but with hitting not allowed during summer workouts, he hasn’t put the pads on and tackled anybody in over nine months.
Schmidt was a full participant in Notre Dame’s first preseason practice Friday, though once again, he didn’t have the chance to wear pads and hit anybody. Still, it was an important hurdle for him to clear in his recovery process.
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“Today was the first day I could truly let it loose and then obviously when we start hitting, I’ll be able to feel the pop in my pads,” Schmidt said Friday. “I need that.”
There’s a reason Schmidt won Notre Dame’s team MVP last year despite missing the team’s final five and a half games. At the time of his injury, Schmidt led the Irish in tackles, had two interceptions and forced two fumbles. But he made his greatest impact with his leadership, communication skills and genius-level knowledge of Brian VanGorder’s defense — nose guard Jarron Jones called him the Jimmy Neutron of the Irish defense last year — which proved to be difficult to replace after his injury.
His return is crucial for a defensive group that sustained plenty of haymakers last year, but returns nearly its entire 2014 depth chart (plus cornerback KeiVarae Russell).
“He’s our best leader,” coach Brian Kelly said. “His recall, I’ve never see anybody who has immediate recall for what we do. He’s extremely important.”
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Schmidt and fellow graduate student Nick Martin led conditioning drills during the warm-up/stretching phase of Friday’s practice at Culver Academies, with the pair bellowing out instructions to a team that’s grown up quite a bit since beating LSU in the Music City Bowl last December. There are plenty of other leaders and skilled players on this team, but few are as important as Schmidt is to Notre Dame’s overarching goal of reaching the College Football Playoff.
For Schmidt, he’s just happy to be back with his teammates after watching last November’s collapse from an unenviable spot on the sidelines.
“I have a very finite amount of days left as a Notre Dame football player,” Schmidt said. “And so I’m really valuing each and every one of them. … I’m playing with house money and I’m so excited to be here.”