Unfinished Business: Joe Schmidt
Samantha Zuba | Thursday, November 20, 2014
Senior linebacker Joe Schmidt had other offers.
But they weren’t from Notre Dame.
Since he was a little kid, Schmidt had wanted to attend Notre Dame and play for the Irish, and he decided not to set that dream aside for scholarship offers from schools like Air Force, Cincinnati and Arizona.
Instead, he decided to walk on for the Irish, not wanting to have any regrets.
“As a kid, my dream was always to play at Notre Dame,” Schmidt said. “It’s something I was passionate about since as long as I can remember. For some people, it’s about playing in the NFL or personal accolades. [For me] it was always about Notre Dame, going to Notre Dame.”
Schmidt hails from Orange, California, decidedly in USC territory, and his dad came from a USC family. But Schmidt says his dad always liked Notre Dame, and once he watched “Rudy” with his family around age five, Schmidt was hooked on the University.
He and his dad used to watch the Irish, rosters in hand, and follow recruiting news. And it didn’t hurt that his sister and now brother-in-law attended Notre Dame starting when Schmidt was 10.
Schmidt saw his sister and her future husband grow during their time at Notre Dame and knew the school would offer him the academic, athletic and personal development opportunities he wanted.
“I thought Notre Dame was going to provide me with the best place to really grow myself into the man I wanted to become, and that was important to me,” Schmidt said.
Schmidt started earning playing time sophomore year with the special teams unit, appearing in 10 games. Things really took off in the game against Miami at Soldier Field on Oct. 6, 2012. Schmidt made a series of tackles on kickoff coverage units, including one resounding hit on a sky kick.
“The [returner] kind of splits it out, and I’m the safety on the right on this particular play, and I ended up just hitting him really, really hard and making a great tackle right on their sideline,” Schmidt said. “[Irish head] coach [Brian] Kelly saw it, loved it, and after that, coach Kelly put me on every team and told [special teams] coach [Scott] Booker that he wanted me on there.
“That was really my big opportunity, and thank God I was able to capitalize on it.”
Schmidt capitalized on enough opportunities to earn himself a scholarship after his sophomore season. In his junior season, Schmidt appeared in all 13 games and notched 15 total tackles.
As a senior and regular starter this year, Schmidt put together his best season yet as the team’s leading tackler with 65 total through the first seven games. He emerged as a defensive leader from the middle linebacker position as well.
“He’s been, with so many young guys coming in and playing now … Joe has just been not only a vocal leader, but a leader on the field, and he’s set the example since day one of camp or winter workouts that this is how we’re going to work,” Cavalaris said.
Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith said Schmidt also has led the young defense with his instincts for the game.
“Just Joe understanding the full dynamic of the defensive scheme, understanding what everyone has to do, making sure that everyone had everything set and locked and loaded, him being a senior, having that leadership, he’s meant a lot to us,” Smith said.
“All the young guys call him Papa Bear,” he added.
Schmidt will be the first one to admit his need to rely on instincts instead of sheer physicality, although he has worked tirelessly in developing that area.
“I’ve never been the biggest or the fastest,” Schmidt said. “Any physical attributes, I’ve never been the best at anything in that regard.”
Instead, he has led because of how well he understands the game, having played many different positions and in various schemes.
“I’ve played every position on the football field,” Schmidt said. “Everywhere from every offensive line position, quarterback, fullback, running back, tight end, wide receiver, all of them. I kicked. Actually, I’ve never held, but I’ve played corner, safety, all the linebackers, all the defensive linemen.
“So from a young age, I learned how everyone else sees the game, and once you know how someone else looks at it, it kind of gives you a full picture.”
Schmidt’s road to success was hardly easy, as he came here with no scholarship guarantee and certainly no assurance of playing time.
Some moments have been tough, he says, and none tougher than the broken and dislocated ankle he suffered against Navy on Nov. 1.
“I would love to be out there, and it’s really difficult to watch the team without you,” Schmidt said. “… It’s like breaking up with your girlfriend and then the next day watching her go out to dinner with someone else and watching that happen every day for a really long time. I don’t know if that’s a good analogy, but it hurts not being out there with my brothers.”
Schmidt’s injury coincided with Notre Dame’s biggest struggles of the season after entertaining playoff hopes. The Irish have lost two straight games, to Arizona State and Northwestern, without Schmidt on the field. But he has invested himself in helping his teammates continue to develop.
“I’ve just tried to do whatever I can to help guys improve and continue to lead from the back seat now,” Schmidt said.
And these toughest times will hardly be the ones Schmidt remembers best, he says.
When asked if he has a favorite moment, Schmidt quickly and firmly answers, “Yes.” He recounts his pass breakup on Oct. 19, 2013 as a junior against USC in detail, including the defensive package (dime) and down (third-and-eight). Schmidt’s defensive play kept the Trojans out of field-goal range at the end of the game.
“It was one of the best moments for me ever because, just being from Southern California, my whole family was there, and I remember after the game, seeing all my family; everybody that I loved the most was there,” Schmidt said. “And I remember laying awake that night and thinking about something my dad told me, ‘Really remember the good times because there’s always going to be bad ones in the future. You need to draw on that good experience,’ and that’s one of those experiences I like to draw on. It was by far and away the best day.”
Even with his injury, Schmidt tries to remain as optimistic as possible.
“I try to be the first person to switch my mind and start looking for the positives out of the learning that just happened from whatever experience it was, whether it was losing a game or breaking a leg, trying to see what I can do,” Schmidt said. “Like, hey, my leg’s broken, but my upper body’s going to look great. You know, hey, we lost, but think about all the plays we just saw. Shoot, we’re never going to get beat on this route again.”
Besides, he has many other memories, including the preparation for the 2013 BCS National Championship Game with Cavalaris.
“We woke up the next morning [for the game], and our alarms were both set to the Rudy theme song, like the main title, so we woke up to ‘Doo-doo-doo-doo,’” Schmidt says, singing a rendition. “And I just remember opening my eyes and locking eyes with Connor and being like, ‘Yes.’”
Schmidt, a management-entrepreneurship major, hopes to work in consulting or sales and maybe start his own business.
But before that, Schmidt could have more football left to play.
“I love the locker room that we’re building, and I love the culture that we’re building, and I’m fired up about that, so definitely, I see it as an amazing opportunity if they allow me to come back,” Schmidt said.