SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Five years ago, Joe Schmidt had to beg Notre Dame to take him. He pleaded with assistant coach Mike Denbrock to grant him a walk-on spot, a role that entails plenty of scout team grunt work and little glamour on gamedays.
Eventually, Notre Dame decided to bring aboard the persistent kid from Orange, Calif. That kid earned a scholarship in 2013, was voted team MVP in 2014 and, on Thursday, was named one of five captains for the 2015 season.
“It’s the most humbling, greatest honor that’s ever been bestowed upon me,” Schmidt said. “… Just to have the guys on this team, the guys I spend all of my time with, (for them to) vote on something like that, it’s pretty incredible. I’m just so humbled. I love this team, I love this university. It’s been an incredible feeling.”
Added coach Brian Kelly: “What a representative of our program. In the community, in the classroom, class distinction. And on the field, just a great communicator. A galvanizer as a leader.”
Schmidt, center Nick Martin, defensive tackle Sheldon Day, linebacker Jaylon Smith and defensive back Matthias Farley will wear the captain’s “C” on their jerseys this fall. That those other four players would be named captain wouldn’t have been a surprise two or three years ago — Farley started for the 12-1 2012 Irish, Day was a key part on that team, Martin’s brother was a two-time captain/first-round NFL Draft pick and Smith was a top-five recruit.
Most walk-ons don’t get to revel in the kind of glory Schmidt has garnered since he worked his way into the Irish defense two Octobers ago. But that Schmidt carved out a massively important role as a strong tackler and intelligent tactician is a testament to the work he’s put in since coming to campus in 2011.
“Joe is brilliant,” fellow graduate student linebacker Jarrett Grace said earlier this month. “Early on in his career, everybody counted out Joe. They thought, who is this kid? So he was diving into his playbook, he was understanding the game, concepts, philosophies, then when Joe got his shot, he was ready. He had been working harder than anybody, physically, mentally just honing his craft.”
Schmidt set out to be more than a scout team player from the moment Notre Dame decided to welcome him to South Bend. That’s a great expectation for a walk-on, but he proved to be up to his challenge.
“You have to set very high goals and standards and really, I just tried to do everything I could to be a guy that people could count on, that people came to if they needed something, someone that drove the team and helped make us better,” Schmidt said. “And so really that’s what I kind of focused on. Those were my goals and this happened to come along with it. I’m overcome. It’s pretty incredible.”
While Schmidt wasn’t a captain last year, he quickly became Notre Dame’s most important defensive leader. When he suffered a season-ending ankle injury Nov. 1, he was the team’s leading tackler. His ability to understand and communicate defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s first-year scheme was invaluable. Without him, the Irish defense went from being solid to allowing 43 points per game during the rest of a month in which they finished 0-4.
Kelly said Schmidt isn’t quite back to where he was before his injury last year — he dislocated and fractured his ankle less than 10 months ago — but is gradually getting back to that level. Others around him may have better knowledge and ability to communicate VanGorder’s system, but Schmidt’s skill and intelligence still make him an indispensable part of the Irish defense.
And if all goes according to plan this fall, Schmidt will leave one of the more impressive and lasting legacies in recent memory at Notre Dame.
“My dream was to come to Notre Dame and just do everything I could to make this university great,” Schmidt said. “I have one more year of doing that, and I’m just trying to do everything I can do to do that.”