SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame football watched 113 tackles and seven interceptions walk off the field in Miami following the 2013 BCS national championship game, as senior Manti Te'o played his last game. So Fighting Irish coach Brian Kelly has every reason to be distraught when thinking about the middle linebacker spot in 2013, right?
Not so fast, my Irish friend.
“I'm pretty excited about that position,” Kelly said recently. “Jarrett Grace has done an incredible job or I wouldn't feel that way about it.”
Grace and Kendall Moore are battling to fill Te'o's legacy through this spring and Kelly feels much better about the position heading into next season than he did perhaps a few weeks ago.
“Jarrett is a really, really good football player,” Kelly said.
Grace is entering his second season of competition and the 6-foot-3; 240-pound athlete brings the necessary attributes of speed and agility to the position.
“He's going to be all over the football field,” Kelly said. “Will he have seven interceptions? I'm not going in that direction. But in terms of running sideline-to-sideline, communication, he's shown himself to be a really good football player.”
After sitting out his first year at Notre Dame, Grace spent time on special teams and played in all 13 games a year ago. He recorded 12 tackles last fall and so far this spring has the edge on Moore. But that isn't to mean that Moore won't see the field, as well.
“Kendall is an interesting guy that kind of gets lost in the shuffle,” Kelly said. “Kendall has really high-end athletic ability. High-end.”
Like Grace, the 6-foot-1, 242-pound Moore will be in his second season of seeing action and notched 10 tackles on special teams and limited action at inside linebacker a year ago. In his first year in South Bend, he made a strong enough impression at practices to earn the Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year honor.
“Kendall runs and hits,” Kelly said. “We've just got to get him to run and hit the right people on a consistent basis. He's got great energy and great enthusiasm.”
Kelly returns veterans Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese at one inside linebacker spot, while he contemplates through the remainder of this spring how to best utilize the combination of Grace and Moore at the other.
“In an ideal world,” Kelly said, “it's Grace and it's Kendall at (Mike linebacker), and it's Fox and Calabrese. But we want to leave our options open if Grace has to come off of the field because he's banged up. We want to be able to slide Calabrese, maybe, over there.”