Notre Dame

Jarrett Grace takes the long road back to Notre Dame


Jarrett Grace takes the long road back to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Arguably no Notre Dame player has worked harder than Jarrett Grace to be able to run out to meet his parents at midfield for Saturday’s senior day ceremonies at Notre Dame Stadium.

Grace suffered a brutal injury in early October of 2013, breaking his leg against Arizona State and undergoing two separate procedures on it over the next five and a half months. His focus in 2014 was less about getting back on the field and more about re-learning how to run — even though he was in pads and a helmet, Grace limped through warm-ups that season and wasn’t cleared for contact until 2015’s spring practice.

But he’s returned from that devastating moment at AT&T Stadium to fill in the gaps as a special teams player and veteran leader on a Notre Dame team that heads into its game against Wake Forest this weekend with an 8-1 record and No. 4 ranking in the College Football Playoff race.

“It’s simply amazing that he’s been able to recovery from that injury he had, and to be able to get back on the field this year and contribute as much as he’s been able to on special teams, it’s just really amazing,” Grace’s father, Joel, said. “Me and his mom, we’re just really, really proud of him. The determination he had not to give up, he really wants to continue to play football. He loves it.”

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Grace made five tackles against Navy as he helped Notre Dame’s defense smother the Mids’ triple option in the second half of a 41-24 win last month, too. In a season with razor-thin margins and no room for error, Grace’s efforts helped turn a possible upset into one of Notre Dame’s better wins of the season.

“It was like yep, that’s Jarrett,” Joel Grace said. “He’s back doing what he does. It was really an emotional high to see him back out there doing it.”

Grace, three years ago, looked like the heir apparent to Manti Te’o at Mike linebacker. He didn’t begin the 2013 season as Notre Dame’s starter there, but split time there with Dan Fox. Grace felt like he was starting to play his best football leading up to his injury, making it, and the lengthy recovery timetable, that much more cruel.

But Grace didn’t give up after his injury, and feels a sense of accomplishment that he made it back for a fifth season after a year and a half relegated to rehab work and the sidelines.

“I’m very proud of that fact because, who knows, if I hadn’t put in that much work and people hadn’t believed in me and trusted in me, and I didn’t make this recovery, then who knows if they invite me back,” Grace said. “But that’s all said and done. We’ve done that work. That’s behind us now. So I’m definitely proud that I’m able to come to this point again with full health, being somebody who’s playing on the field. It makes it different. It makes it especially different to know I’m actually going to play in my senior game as well.”

[MORE: Notre Dame expects chaos in College Football Playoff race]

Coach Brian Kelly lauded Grace's commitment to Notre Dame and returning to the field, too.

"It's not overlooked by anybody in the program, no player, no coach, no support staff, certainly not our medical staff," Kelly said. "When we reflect back on Jarrett Grace's time here, we'll say he impacted on program not only on the field but off the field in terms of his commitment, his resolve, his love for Notre Dame and wanting to get back on the field, and just for those that were out there while he was struggling through this injury and limping every day and stretch lines and trying to work through it.

"Because we remember what he looked like prior to, it's a pretty inspirational story for all those players and coaches and staff members that have been part of this."

There does exist a possibility, though, that Grace’s career won’t come to an end when Notre Dame’s season does. Grace can apply for a waiver to be granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA (the complete bylaw is below), though Notre Dame will first have to want him back and second, he’ll then have to be granted that additional year. But given Grace missed more than a year due to his injury — the second half of 2013, plus all of 2014 — and is, in 2015, only in his third season of playing, he could be granted that waiver.

Grace said he’d “definitely” be open to coming back for another year.

“I feel like a lot of time’s been taken away from me and I still have a lot more to offer to Notre Dame, to just my own career and to my teammates,” he said.

But if Saturday’s game is indeed his last time playing at Notre Dame Stadium, he’ll leave South Bend without any regrets.

“When it’s all said and done and the dust settles," Grace said, "I’m just going to sit there and be like, Wow, I am so lucky and so blessed that I’ve been able to share in all these great memories for all these years.”

[MORE: Sheldon Day owns his role, Notre Dame legacy in senior year]


The NCAA bylaws on granting a sixth year are pasted below:  Five-Year Rule Waiver. The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement, or its designated committee, by a two-thirds majority of its members present and voting, may approve waivers of the five-year rule as it deems appropriate. Waiver Criteria. A waiver of the five-year period of eligibility is designed to provide a student- athlete with the opportunity to participate in four seasons of intercollegiate competition within a five-year period. This waiver may be granted, based upon objective evidence, for reasons that are beyond the control of the student-athlete or the institution, which deprive the student-athlete of the opportunity to participate for more than one season in his or her sport within the five-year period. The Committee on Student-Athlete Reinstatement reserves the right to review requests that do not meet the more-than-one-year criteria detailed in this bylaw for circumstances of extraordinary or extreme hardship. A student-athlete  who has exhausted his or her five years of eligibility may continue to practice (but not compete) for a maximum of 30 consecutive calendar days, provided the student-athlete’s institution has submitted a waiver request. The student-athlete may not commence practice until the institution has filed such a request. Further, if such a request is denied prior to exhausting the 30-day practice period, the student-athlete must cease all practice activities upon the institution’s notification of the denial.

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

Is Brian Kelly out at Notre Dame if new QB Brandon Wimbush’s rocket arm doesn’t deliver for Irish in 2017?

A 4-8 season in 2016 has put Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly firmly on the hot seat as he heads into his eighth season with the Fighting Irish.

In response to a tumultuous season, Kelly made major changes to his staff this past offseason by hiring new coordinators on both sides of the ball.

Mike Elko, who previously led Wake Forest to an FBS Top-40 total defense ranking, was hired by Kelly to be Notre Dame's defensive coordinator, and Chip Long — former offensive coordinator at Memphis — will now be in charge of the Fighting Irish offense.

However, the biggest change and arguably the No. 1 factor in Kelly's long-term future in South Bend, will be the person under center in 2017.

Barring an unforeseen circumstance, junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush — a former Rivals four-star recruit — will lead Notre Dame out of the tunnel in Week 1 vs. Temple.

Wimbush has only thrown five passes during his time at Notre Dame, but showed what kind of talent he has with a 58-yard rushing touchdown as a freshman in 2015.

Wimbush was one of the focal points of a recent Rivals story regarding quarterbacks who will be facing pressure in 2017

Earlier this week, Rivals Recruiting Director Mike Farrell gave his scouting report on the Notre Dame quarterback.

I’m a big fan of Wimbush but that hasn’t always been the case. It’s not that I didn’t like him when I first scouted him before his high school career took off, but what I saw way back when was a kid who had a rocket arm and zero touch. But throughout his high school career he improved every time I saw him, showed much more than just a strong arm and flashed impressive poise for his age.

I’ve seen very limited action when it comes to Wimbush in college as he hasn’t played often and his spring game performance had ups and downs, but I believe in this kid’s ability. He can extend the play, has that great arm and just needs to get comfortable in the Notre Dame offense and make sure he doesn’t try to use that cannon to fit the ball into tight spots. I can see him having some growing pains this season, but as he gets more comfortable and learns to take what the defense gives him while keeping defenses off balance with his athletic ability, I think he’ll finish strong.

Will Wimbush's rocket arm be enough to save Kelly from the hot seat?

That's still to be determined.

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

Two views of Notre Dame's 2017 signing day class

After a handful of late additions sent in their national letters of intent to the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Notre Dame on Wednesday announced its 21-player recruiting class of 2017. There are a couple of ways to view the end of what was a volatile recruiting period for the Irish:

The glass-half-full take:

Two and a half months after wrapping up an embarrassing 4-8 season, Notre Dame's 2017 recruiting class ranks 11th by 247 Sports, 13th by Rivals, 13th by Scout and 16th by ESPN. In fact, Notre Dame actually ranks higher this year in 247 Sports' composite rankings (11th) than it did in 2016 (15th), when the Irish were coming off a 10-win season and a Fiesta Bowl berth. 

Nearly scraping together a top-10 class after going 4-8 and losing four assistant coaches in Mike Sanford, Mike Denbrock, Scott Booker and Keith Gilmore is an impressive feat (Greg Hudson was only an interim defensive coordinator, and Brian VanGorder was far from a reliable recruiter). Plenty of kudos should be extended the way of recruiting coordinator/defensive line coach Mike Elston for heading up the program's efforts to keep what began as a pretty strong class from disintegrating. 

Additionally, coach Brian Kelly pointed to the work of the 15 verbally-committed players who stuck with their pledges even as Notre Dame sustained a string of confounding losses and significant coaching turnover. 

"We couldn't be where we are today unless we had 15 student-athletes that were committed to Notre Dame from the start to the finish," Kelly said. "Really during a very difficult season, this group of 15 really had to endure the things that would occur out there in recruiting during a very difficult season. Other schools reminding them about a very difficult season that we had. Then there was them sticking together because of why they wanted to come to Notre Dame."

Five of those players enrolled early — tight end Brock Wright, offensive linemen Robert Gainsay and Aaron Banks, running back C.J. Holmes and safety Isaiah Robertson, all of whom 247 sports rated as four-star recruits — and guys like tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and offensive linemen Joshua Lugg never wavered, too. 

That those players stuck together helped Notre Dame maintain a good base after the NCAA-mandated dead period lifted after the College Football Playoff title game last month, and new coaches Brian Polian, Mike Elko, Clark Lea, Chip Long and DelVaughn Alexander were able to bring in six late additions to the class: safety Jordan Genmark Heath, wide receiver Jafar Armstrong, kicker Jonathan Doerer, defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa, linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and defensive lineman Kofi Wardlow. 

Armstrong, Tagovailoa and Wardlow all filled red-line positions of need, while adding more players to increase the pool of talent available to Elko is hardly a bad thing. 

But the optimistic viewpoint here is the deck was stacked against Notre Dame in recruiting, and they actually turned out a pretty good hand thanks to a complete effort from everyone in the athletic department. 

"Every weekend, Jack Swarbrick, our athletic director, met with our recruits," Kelly said. "That's unusual. I don't think that happens everywhere that your athletic director makes himself able to meet with recruits.

"In a lot of instances he had to be there to support our football program and talk to recruits about where this program is and where it's going. There are questions when a family comes on campus. He reminded them about the investment we were making in staff and what we were doing for the present and for the future. So having Jack's involvement in this was absolutely crucial to get to where we are."

Now, for the glass-half-empty take:

Notre Dame had six players decommit, five of whom were at positions of need (defensive line, cornerback, wide receiver). Only four-star defensive end Robert Beal jumped ship before Notre Dame's fall tailspin was underway, and four of those six decommitting players were four-star recruits. 

Notre Dame wound up replacing them with six late commitments, but five of those late-deciding players were three-star recruits and one (Doerner) was a two-star player. That's a good recipe for slipping from having a top-10 class to one on the outside looking in. 

A common lament among fans is that Notre Dame has struggled to sign five-star recruits lately, and while it's true the Irish haven't done that since 2013 — Jaylon Smith and Max Redfield, as rated by 247 Sports — that's not as big an issue as it may seem. Just look at the disparity in college success between Smith and Redfield as a front-and-center example of how a five-star rating doesn't guarantee success in college. Signing more four/five-star recruits than two/three-star ones is far more important (more on that in a bit). 

But the bigger issue with Notre Dame's 2017 class perhaps has more to do with its 2016 class. Notre Dame lost ace recruiters Tony Alford and Kerry Cooks after the 2014 season and re-worked its entire recruiting operation in response, which led to little oomph in a 2016 class that, based on the prior season, should've been much better than it was. 

Last year's group could ultimately build a legacy as a less-heralded crop of recruits that went on to success — the strong debuts of 247 Sports three-stars in cornerback Julian Love and wide receiver Kevin Stepherson were good starts — but there's a long way to go there. 

If 2016 was supposed to be a more transitional recruiting class, though, then 2017 represents a massive missed opportunity. Going 4-8 with all the right recruiting machinations in place is a glaring shortcoming for the future of the program — even a nine-win season could've allowed Notre Dame to hang on to some of those four-star players it lost and earn a top-10 class ranking. 

More importantly than a top-10 class, though, is pulling in more four- and five-star recruits than two and-three star ones. Notre Dame didn't do that in 2017 (10 four-star recruits out of 21) or 2016 (10 four-star recruits out of 23) after hitting that benchmark each of the last three recruiting cycles. That's a worrying trend given the correlation between signing a majority of four- and five-star recruits and winning a championship

The last two recruiting cycles have been, in that context, significant disappointment. While strong classes in 2014 and 2015 could prop up a playoff run as soon as this fall, the future of the program may not be on solid footing even if the Irish engineer a major turnaround in 2017. Next year's class likely will be critical to the long-term success of the program under Kelly, presuming he's still around to usher in the next group of recruits in February of 2018.