By the end of next week, Brian Kelly should know where Jarrett Grace stands.
Notre Dame’s head coach will meet with head athletic trainer Rob Hunt on May 22 for an anticipated update on the injured linebacker, who suffered four fractures in his right leg last October against Arizona State. Grace underwent a second surgery during spring practice to insert a metal rod into the leg to aid stability.
The late May update roughly keeps with Kelly’s initial take at the time of that second surgery when he felt Grace needed another six weeks of healing before assessing the linebacker’s return date.
“We're very hopeful based upon last time we saw with him,” Kelly said. “He’s on that pace. So we'll just have to wait and see."
If Grace can’t go this fall, a possibility Kelly entertained at the time of the second surgery, the starting mike linebacker against Rice would likely be former walk-on Joe Schmidt, who impressed the coaching staff during spring ball with his football IQ.
Kelly may have another option for that position in Ben Councell, who tore his ACL on a kickoff coverage against Navy in November. Kelly highlighted Councell as ahead of schedule with his rehab during spring practice. The former dog linebacker behind Jaylon Smith has shown enough this off-season that defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder sees a player who could work across multiple linebacker positions.
On paper, Councell may be a physical misfit for VanGorder’s scheme that doesn’t emphasize height and length as much as Diaco did. But even at 6-foot-4 ½ and 254 pounds, Kelly sees a linebacker who could play in space a la John Turner or bump inside where Grace and Schmidt work.
The potential impact of Councell giving the Irish two-for-one options at linebacker could be significant with depth sparse. During spring practice walk-on Austin Larkin backed up the former walk-on Schmidt. Turner was backed up by receiver turned safety turned linebacker James Onwualu.
Even if he’s not starting, Councell could bolster both positions.
“He gives us that bigger linebacker that allows us flexibility based upon the people we're playing,” Kelly said. “He's a really good athlete that has some flexibility to move him inside-out. I think (VanGorder) is kind of excited to find out what he has, too. So I think really we don't really know where he fits right now.”
Councell worked at outside linebacker, middle linebacker and defensive end in high school before he signed with the Irish to play on the perimeter. After a red shirt season and little playing time as a sophomore, he moved into a complementary role with Smith last fall before going down against Navy.
“Plays with very strong hands, so he's really good at the point of attack if he has to control the tight end,” Kelly said. “And if they spread it we think he's athletic enough to move him inside."