SOUTH BEND – Joe Schmidt didn’t know what to expect when he was beckoned to coach Brian Kelly’s office on a Friday morning this summer.
At first, my reaction was, Oh, God, what did I do?’ Schmidt said.
What the linebacker did was earn a scholarship as he entered his junior year after being a walk-on his first two years.
Schmidt, from Orange, Calif., didn’t play as a freshman, but as a sophomore, he recorded six tackles in 10 games while playing mainly on special teams.
He helps the football team, Kelly said. We saw that the other night (when Schmidt had a tackle and broke up a pass in a 14-10 win over USC on Saturday). He was worthy of one of our 85 scholarships.
Kelly’s news sent Schmidt right to his phone to call his father, who is also named Joe, to tell him the good news.
It’s 5 a.m. his time, and he is like, What’s up Joe.’ I was like, Hey, Dad, how would you like to save $150,000 over the next couple of years,’ Schmidt said. He was like, Yeah, that’s great, but how can we do that?’ I was like, Well, they have these things called scholarships.’ It was amazing to call my dad and tell him that kind of news.
Schmidt’s journey halfway across the country to try and earn a spot on Notre Dame’s football team wasn’t typical.
The former standout at California powerhouse Mater Dei had a preferred walk-on spot waiting for him at USC, meaning he was guaranteed to be on the team but wouldn’t have a scholarship.
He also had scholarship offers from other schools, including Air Force (1-6), which plays host to the Irish (5-2) on Saturday.
But the 6-foot, 230-pounder wanted to follow his dream of playing for the Irish.
I had an older sister that came here and my brother-in-law, said Schmidt, whose sister Catherine ran track at Notre Dame and brother-in-law Greg Lopez played baseball for the Irish. I’d seen the movie Rudy,’ and it’s cliché, but you really do fall in love with the university. Once that bug bites you, there’s really no turning back.
Notre Dame is fortunate that Schmidt didn’t turn back as he has become an important piece to the defense after starting inside linebacker Jarrett Grace was lost to a broken leg for the season in a 37-34 win over Arizona State on Oct. 5.
With Grace out, Schmidt is now the backup for starter Dan Fox and is the lone middle linebacker when the Irish shift into dime formation.
Schmidt’s biggest contribution came with 1:05 left in the game against USC, when he broke up a pass intended for Jalen Cope-Fitzpatrick with the Trojans facing third-and-8 from the Irish 41. USC then failed to convert on fourth down to seal Notre Dame’s win.
I kind of just went straight for the ball, Schmidt said. I wasn’t trying to hit him. I was just trying to get the ball. As soon as I hit him, I knew the ball came out. I was pretty excited about that.
It might have been the most excited I’ve been at Notre Dame. I was completely and totally jacked. I see (tight end Troy Niklas) and the entire sideline going absolutely ballistic. Fox and (former Irish linebacker Danny) Spond, they are jumping higher than I’ve ever seen them jump.
That was an amazing feeling to be able to help the team. It was completely and totally a dream.