POSTED: 12:43 p.m. HST, Sep 27, 2013
SOUTH BEND, Ind. >> At first glance, Notre Dame linebackers Jaylon Smith and Jarrett Grace don't appear to have a lot in common other than being starters the 22nd-ranked Fighting Irish are counting on to help slow No. 14 Oklahoma's offense.
Smith started for the Irish just four days after attending his first college class and was in on the tackle on the first play. Grace didn't play as a freshman, was primarily a special teams player as a sophomore and didn't get his first start until last week, the fourth game of his junior season. He is listed as a starter again when the Irish (3-1) face the Sooners (3-0) on Saturday.
The 6-3, 233-pound Smith was a five-star recruit from Fort Wayne who drew headlines when he announced where he was going to school while Grace, who is 6-3 and weighs 253, was a less-heralded recruit from Cincinnati who had to wait and work for his opportunity.
They have a common thread that binds them, though: inevitable comparisons to Manti Te'o. Grace because he is trying to replace the Heisman Trophy runner-up at middle linebacker and Smith because he is the highest-rated recruit Notre Dame has signed since Te'o famously arrived on campus.
Both say the comparisons to the rookie San Diego Chargers linebacker don't add any pressure.
"Honestly, I don't feel it at all," Grace said. "We have a great relationship. I support him and he supports me."
Smith, who accomplished something Te'o didn't in becoming the first Irish linebacker to start his first game since Kory Minor did it in 1995, said he's just focused on trying to learn the college game.
"He set his own legacy. I'm just here trying to contribute any way I can," he said.
Smith has contributed so far with 11 tackles, one for loss, with one pass breakup. The Irish had expected Smith to start the season as a backup, but he won the starter's job after returning starter Danny Spond abruptly decided to end his playing career after suffering for the second straight year from a hemiplegic migraine, a rare form of headache that causes temporary stroke-like symptoms.
Spond still attends practices and is helping Smith learn the position of drop linebacker, which can include everything from covering receivers to taking on 300-pound linemen. He will be called on to do all those things against Oklahoma, which is averaging 272 yards a game running and 219 yards passing.
"It's really just a blessing coming in every day and working and just learning from Danny. Him teaching me the ins and outs whether to read run or pass and just things like that. It's something that has improved my game," Smith said.
Coach Brian Kelly, who arrived at Notre Dame's after Te'o started 10 games as a freshman and said after watching film that he didn't think Te'o was ready, said he believes playing Smith early is a plus.
"The benefits of playing him is that you get a lot of experience early on, especially with our schedule," Kelly said. "He's getting an opportunity to learn a lot. You're going to have to live with some mistakes that are made. But boy, I'll tell you what, he's made some really good plays for us as well."
The coaches started Dan Fox, who started at the other inside linebacker position last season, at the middle linebacker spot the first three games and rotated Grace in. He's been getting increasingly more time at the spot and led the Irish with 10 tackles in the win against Purdue and was the co-leader against Michigan State with eight. He leads the Irish this season with 28 tackles, one more than Fox and two more than Carlo Calabrese, who shares time with Fox at the other inside linebacker spot.
Kelly said he's been impressed by the leadership Grace has shown playing on a veteran squad that was led by Te'o last season.
"Even though he was behind our best leader in our program, and that has a tendency, obviously, to overshadow you, he led in community service. He led in fellowship. Now he's starting to become more vocal as a football player, as well," he said.
Grace said he feels like the new guy at times, but he's growing increasingly confident with each game and is willing to speak up more.
"You recognize that I have just as much invested in this team as these guys do and we all have the same goal, we want to win. So if I'm going to do something that's going to help the team win, I better do it," he said.
The Irish are counting on them both as Notre Dame tries to improve to 10-1 all-time against the Sooners.