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Notre Dame middle linebacker Joe Schmidt living dream and lifting the Irish defense

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Joe Schmidt's right-hand-man says the defense wouldn't be the same without him. His father says he wouldn't put a price on his son's dream. His coach invoked the name of the NFL's top defensive player when discussing him -- at least in each's recruitment.

"There's a handful of those guys every year: When I recruited J.J. Watt at Central Michigan, why didn't he have more offers?" Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "So everywhere that I've been, I've recruited somebody along the way that has turned out to be a great player and he didn't have a lot of offers."

Hyperbole aside, Schmidt's path from preferred walk-on to starting middle linebacker has been one of the more remarkable stories this season for No. 9 Notre Dame, which puts its 4-0 mark to the test Saturday against No. 14 Stanford. The California kid is one off the team lead in tackles (30) and has been instrumental in the development of the nation's No. 4 scoring defense, a unit that replaced seven starters from 2013 while adjusting to new coordinator Brian VanGorder and his aggressive attack.

VanGorder deemed the redshirt junior before the season as "unusual" in his ability to communicate as the quarterback of a new defense. So far that has bared true, with Schmidt tracing the knowledge-base back to an adolescent career that saw him play everywhere from the trenches to under center to the secondary.

Schmidt's father, also Joe, saw those instincts take over when his son was called up to the varsity as a sophomore at powerhouse Mater Dei in Santa Ana, which at the time featured future pros Matt Barkley and Khaled Holmes.

The insecurity of being the new guy begat extended time in the film room, the elder Schmidt said, the same way the insecurity of entering Notre Dame as a walk-on begat over-preparation. Mater Dei coaches at times had to re-enforce to Schmidt that his talent belonged among the big boys he was playing with, for fear of him becoming too cerebral and not trusting his instincts.

When Schmidt's parents take him to dinner after games now, they hardly recognize the disciplined eater, who had regularly downed burgers, fries and soda as a teenager. When in the stands, Schmidt's father at times cannot help but grow uneasy watching his son running around barking orders like a drill sergeant before each play.

" 'Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped,' " the elder Schmidt joked. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Despite a 98-tackle senior year that ended in the state semifinals, the now-235-pound Schmidt failed to draw heavy interest from college suitors. The Schmidts takes some responsibility for that, given Joe's narrow-minded approach to his recruitment. The oldest of his three sisters, 31-year-old Catherine, had run track at Notre Dame, and the family would visit during football weekends. Schmidt, roughly 10 at the time, immediately fell in love with the place and never wavered. Backyard football consisted of him pretending he was playing for Notre Dame, often scoring game-winning touchdowns against home-state rival USC.

Under-sized and without much pro-activeness toward the small pool of interested recruiters, Schmidt found his offers limited to Ivy League schools, Cincinnati, Air Force and few others. There remained Notre Dame -- which offered him a preferred walk-on spot -- and its roughly $50,000-a-year pricetag, making for lengthy conversations between son and parents.

"We had a wall covered in posterboard weighing them all," Schmidt said of the options.

The Ivy alternatives didn't look so bad to his parents. (Joe is an investor at a private-equity firm. His wife, Debra, is a pro soccer coach.) Schmidt made it clear that he would accommodate their needs, but he also laid out the dream in front of him.

" 'My dream is to play at Notre Dame,' " the elder Schmidt recalled his son saying. " 'Even if I have success at another school, I don't want to think, 'Could I have done it at Notre Dame?' If I go there and it doesn't work out, at least I gave it my all.'

"My wife and I were in tears. How do you say no to that? You both want what your kids really aspire to achieve, and we knew if he was that hungry he was going to work his tail off."

Special teams contributions gave way to a scholarship in June 2013. Schmidt informed his parents of the news with a 5:30 a.m. PT wake-up call telling them they had just saved $100,000. A midseason injury to Jarrett Grace last year paved the way for more defensive snaps, with Schmidt living out his dream in his first extended action by making a game-saving hit on USC's final drive to help clinch the win.

His father joked that he might have needed to give his son eternal psychological counseling had that game ended differently, but Schmidt's been the one leaving his mark on others. He helped establish Notre Dame's chapter of Uplifting Athletes, a non-profit that aligns college football teams with rare diseases. When his uncle, Gary, died from lung cancer two years ago at the age of 61, he and his family launched the Schmidt Legacy Foundation, which raises money for medical research, specifically lung cancer and dementia. Schmidt was Notre Dame's nominee for the AFCA Good Works Team, as its most charitable player.

Schmidt's unusual skills have carried him through an unusual route, accelerating the growth of a defense down four contributors amid the school's internal academic probe. He's been indispensable through the first-third of the season, an unlikely cog behind an Irish team whose playoff résumé will swell if it beats the Cardinal on Saturday.

"That's my brother, I love him," said linebacker Jaylon Smith, the Irish's leading tackler (31). "Both of us in the middle, it's just all about family and making sure we're on the same page. ... The communication level, the focal point, it wouldn't be there without him."