SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It took Jarrett Grace 22 months to finally play football pain free.
The graduate student linebacker endured a grueling rehab process after breaking his tibia and fibula in multiple places Oct. 5, 2013, against Arizona State, but the beginning of preseason camp earlier this month marked the first time Grace practiced at a level he feels truly is full strength.
“The spring was awesome just to get my feet wet, but I was kind of working through a lot of pain, that sort of thing,” Grace said. “But now I feel like I can really contribute to this team and just hone in on being a great linebacker/special teams guy, really just do everything I can now and go after it with full health."
Grace underwent two procedures on his leg and had to essentially re-learn how to run last year. His awkward jogs during preseason camp last year looked painful, both from a physical and mental viewpoint.
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While he was cleared to return to practice and take contact in March, Grace admitted he wasn’t fully capable of playing like he did before his injury two years ago.
“I was definitely frustrated because I'm used to being able to fly around, never getting tired, never having fatigue, and so that was probably the harder part of it for me,” Grace said. “Pain, you can deal with that. You can just kind of shut it off and just keep going. And so I would be limping sometimes but I wouldn't even really be thinking about it, but it'd be frustrating when I'm trying to run with somebody, like, ‘I know I can get there. I know I can do this.’ Now, I don't have that.
“Now, not that I had excuses before, but there's no excuses. I'm not letting anything hold me back. I'm gonna leave it all out there."
Where Grace fits in an Irish defense loaded with Mike linebackers remains to be seen. Fellow graduate student Joe Schimdt is invaluable for both his physical abilities and intelligence, while sophomore Nyles Morgan flashed his excellent athletic ability and work ethic after Schmidt suffered a season-ending ankle injury last November.
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Grace very well could be third on the Irish depth chart, but coach Brian Kelly said he could find playing time against option teams (like Georgia Tech and Navy) or offenses that rely heavily on downhill running games.
“There are so many variables in that question relative to if you just look at it from one perspective and say, well, how are you going to get all those Mike linebackers out there? That's a valid point,” Kelly explained, “but the reality of it is that with the different offenses that we see each and every week, there is enough reps for all those guys to play meaningful minutes and really impact every game we play.”
Grace was the heir apparent to Manti Te’o in Bob Diaco’s 3-4 defense two years ago and totaled 41 tackles in seven games before getting hurt. He had to learn Brian VanGorder’s defense from the sidelines over the last year and a half, though said he likes the aggressiveness that comes with his new defensive coordinator’s scheme.
While Grace is in his fifth year at Notre Dame, there’s a possibility he could be granted a sixth year of eligibility given he missed the entire 2014 season with his broken leg. Grace’s decision whether or not to apply for that extra year is still a ways off, but his goal is to find a way to help Notre Dame as much as he can for as long as he can.
“The way I look at it, I wanna kick some butt this year, I wanna just knock people around,” Grace said. “I love Notre Dame. I'm just gonna put it out there, I don't ever really wanna leave Notre Dame, so I'm gonna stay here for as long as possible.
“Just give me a (graduate assistant) spot, anything like that. I just wanna help out Notre Dame to win as many games as possible each and every year that I have a chance to.”