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October 26, 2013

Too small, slow, but productive

Facing the difficult choice of a safe bet near home or long odds at Notre Dame, Joe Schmidt knew what he should do.

Seeing a teammate’s season end, which forced Schmidt into the fray against Arizona State, the junior linebacker didn’t flinch.

Protecting a slim lead against a charging USC offense, Schmidt instinctively knew where to go.

But when Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered the walk-on a scholarship this summer, suddenly Schmidt didn’t know what to do. Unfamiliar territory doesn’t usually faze the California native, but for a few moments that June morning, proper action eluded him.

“I was at a loss for words,” Schmidt said, able to sum up that experience far better now than he could then. “I called my dad, and that was an amazing conversation, just to be able to tell the guy that’s been paying for your school that he doesn’t have to do that anymore.”

When Schmidt first told his father he could save more than a hundred thousand dollars in the coming years, the elder Schmidt was caught off guard. Joe had passed up scholarship offers two years ago, and since then the s-word had always seemed more dream than possibility.

“The hardest part was telling my dad, ‘Hey, I want to try and earn my way here,’” Schmidt said. “That’s why that scholarship was so sweet, because I had turned down opportunities to not have to pay for my schooling.”

Since Jarrett Grace’s season ended with a broken leg against Arizona State, Schmidt now finds himself in the midst of the inside linebacker rotation. He’s often the lone linebacker on the field in the Irish dime package. Such was the case when USC had a 3rd-and-8 on Notre Dame’s side of the field in Saturday’s closing minutes. USC quarterback Cody Kessler saw an open target crossing the field. The target was not open for long.

“I saw the quarterback looking and I thought at first I was going to pick it off, but then I realized the guy was coming a lot faster,” Schmidt recalled of the pivotal play. “As soon as I hit the guy, I knew the ball was coming out.”

Across the country, former Irish walk-ons noticed Schmidt make the play. They keep their eyes trained on the walk-on brethren.

“That was a fantastic play,” former kicker David Ruffer said.

“It was no surprise to me when Joe made a great play against USC late in the game,” added former safety Chris Salvi. “A lot of times, walk-ons have a greater appreciation for the opportunities they’re given, so when they’re given them, they usually perform well because it means so much every single time.”

When Schmidt returned to the sideline, he endured more punishing hits than he had on the field. Friends since childhood, junior tight end Troy Niklas congratulated Schmidt like he often greets opposing defenders.

“Troy almost killed me. There was a lot of happiness and euphoria,” said Schmidt, who once defended Niklas in a high school game. “Dan Spond was going absolutely ballistic, and Dan Fox was going crazy as well.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d received such a positive reaction from his teammates. The team’s respect of Schmidt factored into Kelly awarding him a scholarship.

“From a character standpoint, the team was excited to see Joe Schmidt on scholarship,” Kelly said. “That’s measured as well in offering a scholarship to a walk-on because they, too, trust in Joe and believed in him.”

When asked to describe Schmidt’s play, however, Kelly used phrases that would argue against offering the 6-foot, 230-pounder a scholarship. They are phrases Schmidt has heard often.

“We’d like him bigger, we’d like him faster, and we’d like him stronger,” Kelly said. “But we knew putting Joe Schmidt in the game, he was not going to get us beat.”

When he announced he was going to Notre Dame instead of USC, Schmidt’s doubters used phrases like “too small” and “too slow.” He took those words as motivation, as “fuel for the fire,” and now he finds himself preparing for Air Force’s option attack, fully expecting to make another solid contribution. And when he talks to those doubters now, Schmidt doesn’t remind them of their words. He doesn’t need to.

“Those are always fun conversations to have,” Schmidt said. “I try not to say anything, but we both know what they said. I’ve never really called anyone or said anything, but they know and I know.

“Because I’ll never forget.”

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