Our countdown of the top 25 players on the 2013 Notre Dame football roster rolls on today with a player tasked with replacing the most decorated defensive player in the history of college football – junior inside linebacker Jarrett Grace.
No player on the Notre Dame roster has bigger shoes to fill this season than Jarrett Grace. Sure, Troy Niklas is replacing a Mackey Award winner and first round pick in Tyler Eifert and Sheldon Day is stepping in for one of the best leaders Notre Dame has seen in a while in Kapron Lewis-Moore; but after Manti Te’o made last year’s award circuit his own personal trophy case, his place in Notre Dame history became legendary.
Te’o spent four years in the Notre Dame starting lineup and capped off a brilliant career with a near Heisman-worthy effort in leading the Notre Dame defense to a 12-0 regular season. Grace is now tasked with stepping in and attempting to replace the 113 tackles and 7 interceptions Manti racked up last year all while only playing sparingly on defense last year and “redshirting” as a freshman in 2011.
Why Jarrett Grace could be ranked higher
This defense is built to funnel plays to the inside linebacker. Featuring one of the best defensive lines in all of college football and perhaps one of the greatest in Notre Dame history this season, opposing offenses are going to have to commit additional resources to blocking Stephon Tuitt and Louis Nix. If they don’t double team both, they are inviting disaster upon themselves.
With Tuitt and Nix keeping opposing offensive coordinators up at night, there is going to be a lot of opportunity for Grace to make plays this season – especially since he is a relative unknown. If you are faced with slowing down Tuitt, Nix, and Prince Shembo in the Notre Dame front seven, you are likely going to take your chances with a first year starter who has all of 12 tackles in his career, aren’t you?
Furthermore, with the pressure that the Notre Dame front is going to be able to generate, Grace will have ample opportunity to make plays in the passing game just as Te’o did a year ago as well. Will he picked off seven passes? Most likely not. He will, however, have plenty of chances to get his hands on a few passes this year.
Why Jarrett Grace could be ranked lower
As a first time starter, Grace is very likely going to face some growing pains. He spent his first season in South Bend on the sidelines and on the scout team and then spent the 2012 season primarily playing special teams since #5 was on the field at almost all times.
Since Notre Dame played so many close games last year, there weren’t a whole lot of opportunities for Grace to see live action in 2012 leaving him with very little experience heading into the 2013 season. He spent the entire spring as the top inside linebacker, but when kick-off comes in August 31, the Irish will have a starter at a key position who has just two career tackles outside of special teams action.
What would a successful 2013 season be for Jarrett Grace
Grace will likely be able to record a lot of tackles this season, even as a first time starter. Ironically, Te’o's total of 113 stops last year was his lowest output since his freshman season. A large reason for that, however, was because the Notre Dame defense was so much more efficient at getting off the field that he had far fewer opportunities for tackles than years past.
With the Notre Dame defense primed for another stellar season with the horses they have up front, Grace likely won’t put up eye popping tackle totals either. As the starter inside and with Nix and Tuitt up front though, a 90-100 tackle season should be expected given the role he will be playing on the defense.
In the passing game it is going to be impossible for Grace to replicate Te’os seven interceptions from 2012, but it should not be unrealistic for Grace to pick off two or three passes of his own this fall.
One area Grace could very likely improve on the performance of Te’o from 2012 though is sacks. Te’o recorded just 1.5 sacks in 2012 after picking up 5.0 in 2011. Grace should be able to get to opposing quarterbacks at least as many times in 2013 as Te’o did in 2012.
Grace will have some ups and downs this year, but he has a bright future and will almost certainly find himself much higher on our list when we run through the top 25 Notre Dame players for the 2014 season next summer.
The rest of our countdown so far: