Jarrett Grace looked like the heir apparent to Manti Te’o in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense. But a traumatic leg injury likely changed the course of Grace’s career, and puts the 2014 season into question for the rising senior from Cincinnati.
Grace began the 2013 season as the team’s Mike linebacker, with the Irish coaching staff planning on the 6-foot-2.5, 253-pounder to take over for Te’o while Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese continued their platoon. While Grace’s transition into the starting lineup was bumpier than most expected, he had just found his rhythm -- starting three straight games and leading the Irish in tackles -- when his season came to a halt in Texas, after suffering multiple fractures in his fibula against Arizona State.
At his best, Grace is the prototype middle linebacker that defenses are built around. But even with an additional surgery this spring to help his bone recover, all of that is up in the air until we see the player that returns after the injury.
Let’s take a closer look at Jarrett Grace.
6'2.5", 253 lbs.
Senior, No. 59
While the recruiting websites didn’t view Grace as an elite national prospect, his offer list suggests otherwise. With the Irish beating out Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State, and Stanford for Grace, the Irish found a perfect 3-4 inside linebacker for Bob Diaco’s system.
On Signing Day, Kelly talked about the fit Grace had in the Irish defense.
“He’s a big, physical presence inside in our 3-4 defense,” Kelly said. “I think you know our defensive structure. Those guys that play inside for us have to take guards on them. So they’ve got to be big, strong and physical. Be able to leverage offensive linemen out and cancel out gaps. He’s certainly somebody that we see that can do that.”
Kelly had a close look at Grace for two years at Cincinnati before finishing off his recruitment at Notre Dame.
Freshman Season (2011): Did not see action.
Sophomore Season (2012): Played in all 13 games, primarily on special teams. Made 12 tackles on the year, including 10 on special teams (eight on kickoff returns, two on punt returns). Made three solo tackles against Wake Forest.
Junior Season (2013): Played in each of the first six games, starting against Michigan State, Oklahoma and Arizona State before breaking his leg against the Sun Devils. His 40 tackles led the team at the time of his injury. Made nine tackles against Oklahoma and eight against Michigan State, co-leading the team against the Spartans.
Grace’s career from here on out will be defined by how he recovers from his broken leg. In a rehab process that’s been grueling, Grace seems to have found some momentum if we are to believe the sporadic updates Brian Kelly has supplied.
After being seen on crutches moving gingerly during spring practice, Grace had an additional surgery to help promote bone growth after one of the breaks in his fibula was healing slowly. That seems to have worked, and if he’s still on schedule, his rehab this summer will be aggressive, with an eye towards being ready to contribute at the beginning of the season.
With a redshirt season already burned, there’s no saving Grace’s 2014. But it’s also not all that realistic to go from crutches to the starting lineup in three months.
The other part of Grace’s storyline that is worth examining is his fit in Brian VanGorder’s 4-3 defense. With a gaping hole in the personnel and only Joe Schmidt to fill it this spring, a healthy Grace is undeniably the team’s starter in the middle if he was healthy. But if the leg injury robs him of mobility and speed then it’s going to be difficult to see Grace continuing in that role moving forward.
There’s no player you should root for more to come back from injury than Grace. The team’s Rockne scholar-athlete of the year in 2013, Grace has all the leadership traits you could ask for in a football player, and has immense respect in the team’s locker room, earned while waiting his turn to play behind Manti Te’o for two seasons.
If this was five years ago, I suspect Grace would already be facing a medical hardship waiver and his football career in South Bend would be over. But the team’s enhanced medical staff and willingness to go above and beyond for its student-athletes with cutting edge rehabilitation techniques gives Grace the best chance he could possibly ask for to return from this injury.
While a return for the season opener against Rice is the goal, giving Grace a full calendar year to return isn’t unreasonable. If that means getting him back for the stretch run, it’s better than most should have expected. Notre Dame has a good experience on their side in the return of Torii Hunter from a freak bone break. But even that came after a setback in recovery, necessitating a redshirt 2013 season.
Grace is a senior with two years of competition remaining. So while the timing for the injury is unfortunate, getting anything out of the linebacker this season would be a huge bonus for Grace and the Irish.
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