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August 16, 2013

Grace seeks sharpened edge

Jarrett Grace spent the summer working on Jarrett Grace.

The junior linebacker added 14 pounds. He watched film. He trained. He wanted to put himself in the best position possible to take over for all-everything Manti Te’o, beating out at least one fifth-year senior in the process.

It’s not clear if Grace will take that final step on the depth chart, but he believes he’ll be better for the climb.

“Summer, it’s time to be selfish, and I don’t mean a negative connotation with that,” Grace said. “It’s a time to really focus on the weights, putting on some good pounds, working speed, strength. I think that’s the time when we get really competitive with each other.”

It might sound counterintuitive, but as Grace battles Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese in the final rounds of their competition to fill Notre Dame’s two inside linebacker spots, the junior doesn’t see it as a fight at all. He said he’s focused on fitting into Notre Dame’s defense, not where he fits into the depth chart.

“Nothing’s gonna be decided for the season just yet,” Grace said. “Even when once the season starts, things aren’t permanent, we’re evaluated on a day-to-day basis. I think each one of us has lots of areas we can move our game forward.”

Grace has the largest square footage for improvement considering the experience disadvantage against Fox and Calabrese. That fifth-year duo has combined for 35 career starts. Grace has 12 career tackles. Despite that tilt to Fox and Calabrese, who have taken virtually every first-team rep shown to the media this month, head coach Brian Kelly insists all three will play.

There’s easy precedent for that too. Fox started nine games last year and Calabrese started five. They were each with the first defense against Purdue when Fox made a brief stop at dog linebacker.

“That’s a fluid situation with all those guys playing in there and getting reps,” Kelly said. “Fox, Calabrese, Grace, all of them. It won’t be a two-person rotation. That’s three right now and who knows, it could be four.”

For Grace, the challenge may be following defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s lead while attempting to replicate the off-script plays of Te’o last year.

Talk to Grace for five minutes and it’s clear he’s a Diaco disciple with his manic energy and coachspeak of culture. But talk to Grace longer and he reveals he wants to be more than just a cog in Notre Dame’s scheme. Reconciling those two instincts might be part of his personal camp process.

“For me, just execute what (Diaco) says and also be a playmaker,” Grace said. “Each one of us has to know our individual game and shine through that. You can’t just always execute the play the way it’s supposed to be done. Sometimes you see something, you just gotta make a play. I think that’s what I’m trying to do also, is along with being on my assignment, also just make plays.”

What kind of shot Grace gets to do that might be determined in the next couple weeks as Notre Dame transitions from training camp to the Temple game plan. And that shot might change again once the season gets rolling.

For the junior linebacker, what kind of opportunity he gets within the defense doesn’t matter to him as much as just getting one.

“Definitely very excited,” Grace said. “I also know I can’t get too high. If you get too high you can burn a lot of gas and get too low. Even though I smile a lot, that’s just my personality to be excited, when I take the field I have a calm, cool demeanor.”

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