NOTRE DAME — It's brains — not brawn — that has transformed Joe Schmidt from a former walk-on into an integral piece in the Notre Dame defense this spring.
The 6-foot-1, 230-pound senior won't "wow" many people with his size and speed, but head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had no choice but to find a place for Schmidt's smarts in their new 4-3 defensive scheme.
"I think he’s earned the right to be on the field right now, because of his football IQ," Kelly said of Schmidt. “Defensively, you have to see things and then react to them. And Joe can see it and react."
In fact, Kelly maintains that the middle linebacker's cerebral approach to the game makes him a better, more instinctual athlete.
"Some guys can’t see it, and then it makes it hard for them to react," Kelly said. "So if you’re a guy that can’t see what’s happening, you can’t use your athletic ability effectively. Joe makes up for that in that he can see it and react. All of a sudden, he takes a 4.8 (40-yard dash) and turns it into a 4.6. So his ability to see things and react changes, maybe, what some would perceive as some physical limitations and turns them into pluses."
When told of Kelly's comments, Schmidt laughed, admitting he didn't know his 40-yard dash time. But he agreed with Kelly's line of thinking.
"I think that if you can put yourself in a position to be successful in a football play and understand what offenses are trying to do against you, then, yes, it can help you be a faster football player," he said.
The Southern California native earned one of Notre Dame's 85 football scholarships in June and broke onto the public radar with a game-saving play against USC last October.
In the absence of incumbent starter Jarrett Grace (broken leg), Schmidt has taken first-team reps at middle linebacker throughout the spring.
Grace underwent a second surgery March 28 to insert a stabilizing rode into his leg. His status for the 2014 season hinges on a doctor's report six weeks after the surgery. Schmidt has flourished in the meantime. He says he picks Grace's brain regularly, and the two talk defense and scheme and the responsibilities of the middle linebacker.
While Schmidt's path from walk-on to the first team defense was unlikely, the senior maintains he never thought it was impossible.
"I think that in order to be successful in anything, you always have to see that in your mind — you have to see yourself being successful and see yourself being that guy," he said. "I knew that this might not happen, I knew it was something I had to scrape and claw for. I'm not saying this is something I have now, but this is something I saw in my head. I have goals and visions for where I want to go in the future."
When he arrived at Notre Dame, Schmidt studied under fellow linebackers Dan Fox and Danny Spond, whose approach to the game mirrored Schmidt's.
"I really picked their brains all the time because they're also real cerebral guys," he said. "I think there have been a lot of guys I look up to and really try to learn from everybody I meet."
Under VanGorder's 4-3 scheme, where all linebackers arrive on a level playing field, that high football IQ has thrived.
Sure, Schmidt will be challenged by Grace when he returns and incoming freshmen Nyles Morgan, Nile Sykes and Greer Martini when they arrive this fall. But the level-headed senior is both realistic and optimistic about his role in the future.
"I just want to be the piece the defense needs me to be," he said."Whatever I can do to help make it the best defense in the country."
Kinlaw dismissed from team
Kelly announced Friday that sophomore cornerback Rashad Kinlaw was dismissed from the football team.
Kelly didn't go into specifics, but he said Kinlaw was dismissed after he "didn't live up to the rules that I lay out within our football program." Kinlaw did not play as a freshman but was expected to serve as a valuable backup in 2014.