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Football: ND looks to Grace in Te’o’s absence

Mike Monaco | Monday, March 25, 2013

Forget about blitzes, stunts and sub packages. Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco is thinking about baking cakes.

Diaco’s defense returns eight starters to a unit that finished last season ranked second in the nation in scoring defense at 12.77 points per game. But though they only need to fill three positions, Diaco said the Irish need to tear things down and start anew.

“You’re making a cake – a sweet vanilla cake – but you run out of vanilla and you decide to put chili powder in there, it’s a completely different cake,” Diaco said Friday. “Do you understand? It tastes nothing like you were expecting it to. In fact, you might not even like it. But everything else was the same. You took the same care. One interjection of one new person creates a totally different dynamic. … So it’s a new thing every single year as we put the unit back together.”

The one person who has left the biggest hole on the defense is last season’s Heisman runner-up, inside linebacker Manti Te’o. And just as a baker can’t put in chili powder and expect the same cake, Diaco said he can’t simply plug in someone to replace Te’o.

“The fact of the matter is Manti is an irreplaceable character,” Diaco said. “He’s not going to be replaced. He’s a once-in-a-lifetime player that a coach has an opportunity and is blessed to have a chance to coach. So no one should have to carry the burden of replacing Manti – ’cause it’s impossible.”

Enter junior inside linebacker Jarrett Grace, one of multiple candidates with his sights set on replacing Te’o as the ‘Mike’ linebacker. The Cincinnati native did not play as a freshman but appeared in all 13 games last year, recording 12 tackles primarily on special teams.

Along with Grace, fifth-year seniors Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese and senior Kendall Moore will vie for time at both inside linebacker positions.

“Everyone wants to be a starter, everyone wants to be that guy,” Grace said of replacing Te’o. “We want to compete, we want to fill that role. No matter what happens we have a lot of great guys that can play inside linebacker. We’re all going to be working for whatever role we end up having and we’re all going to bust our butts off to get that.”

Irish coach Brian Kelly said there is no depth chart at this point, but Grace practiced with the first team-defense during the 30 minutes of media availability during Wednesday’s opening practice.

“I think when you talk about the spring, especially when you’re coming in and taking over for somebody like Manti, we’re going to get the best guys on the field,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Certainly [Grace] has some experience at the position. It would not surprise me that he becomes a key player for us. But, again, great competition at that position. It’s going to be fun to watch.”

Diaco said he has been impressed with the variety of skills that Grace possesses, both tangible and intangible.

“He’s got good speed and good change of direction,” Diaco said. “Intangibly, he’s got a great sense for where the ball is going to end up. So he’s got a good feel in the coverage. He’s got a good feel for fitting the runs. So we’re excited about what we have there. There’s really not a negative right now to say about Grace.”

Grace said even while not seeing much game action through his first two seasons he learned the position and gained confidence from none other than Te’o.

“He was a mentor figure to me,” Grace said of Te’o. “A lot of times when he spoke to me he said, ‘Alright, when it’s your time, when your in this role’ … So we had those kinds of talks and he really guided me while he was here.

“He instilled a lot of confidence in me while I was taking that backseat role. He was still helping me out, helping me improve my game.”

And now Grace has the opportunity to replace his former mentor, someone he agreed is irreplaceable. Just like Diaco, Grace said rebuilding the defense will be a collective effort.

“[Diaco] talks about the defense as a whole, not as individuals, even though we had a great individual performer last year [in Te’o],” Grace said. “We’re definitely concerned about the team production as a whole.”

A whole with new ingredients.

Contact Mike Monaco at
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