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October 17, 2013

Fox grabs second chance

Zack Martin looked up at the massive video board inside AT&T Stadium to watch his roommate score the first touchdown of his college career just hours after returning to Notre Dame's starting defense for good.

Then Martin sprinted on to the field, grabbing hold of Dan Fox before the fifth-year senior linebacker could make it to the sidelines following his pick-six against Arizona State, which put a feel-good spin on a season that's been a struggle for a vet dropped from the starting lineup after three games.

"I knew Dan could handle that," Martin said. "Maybe it wasn't the best thing for him, but at the same time he knew maybe there needed to be a little change."

With Jarrett Grace now lost for the season with a broken leg, Notre Dame must revert back to the inside linebacker pairing of Fox and Carlo Calabrese from here. Coming out of the Oklahoma game, that looked like a problem. The Irish used the Fox-Calabrese pairing on just nine snaps against the Sooners, and those plays averaged 10.3 yards.

In the second half against Arizona State, the Fox-Calabrese pairing took 32 snaps. On those plays the Sun Devils averaged 6.15 yards per play, which included three sacks and two turnovers.

While Brian Kelly said back-ups Kendall Moore and Joe Schmidt will be available moving forward, neither has been a factor in the base defense all season. Schmidt saw reps in Notre Dame's dime package against Arizona State.

For Fox, the turnabout in playing time may prove as drastic as his benching was difficult. He led the Irish in tackles against Temple and Michigan. One game later, defensive coordinator Bob Diaco pulled the trigger on the move to Grace.

"I just stayed positive," Fox said. "I understood that there were a lot of different factors that went into it. I have all the faith in the world in the coaches and was supportive in everything they did. Obviously I was upset, but I understand there's a lot of things that were into that decision."

Fox had enough credibility with the coaching staff to vent about the change after starting nine games during the BCS National Championship Game run and all 13 games the season prior. He'd worked at three different linebacker positions over that run.

Fox played will linebacker most of last season while Manti Te'o held down the mike, although he also started one game at the drop position before Danny Spond returned to health. When Te'o departed, Fox shifted to mike in a rotation with Grace. And then Notre Dame shifted him out of the starting lineup entirely.

"He was livid. He was mad," Kelly said. "And then he handled it like a captain, senior, leader. Although he doesn't have a 'C' on his shirt, he handled it the way that I would expect somebody of his character to handle it. He just went to work. And worked on getting better."

How much work Fox can log during the week must be managed by the coaching staff, considering both the lack of depth at the position and the fact the fifth-year senior underwent shoulder surgery last winter and is also now playing with a knee brace. Fox didn't want to talk specifics on his knee injury, but admitted he's in pain management mode despite insisting he's healthy.
"He could have been disruptive, could have done all those things, but that's why Dan Fox is a special kid," Kelly said. "And now we've got to put him in bubble wrap. He knows that. Now he's got a great opportunity to finish his senior year and finish it in an incredible fashion. 

"We're proud of the way he handled himself in a tough, tough circumstance, and it's only going to benefit him down the road."

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