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Understudy steps into lead

Notre Dame’s Grace filling linebacker role vacated by Te’o

Notre Dame's Jarrett Grace tries to tackle Temple's Nate Harrison earlier this season in South Bend, Ind. Grace has been charged with replacing Manti Te'o on the Irish defense.
Notre Dame's Jarrett Grace tries to tackle Temple's Nate Harrison earlier this season in South Bend, Ind. Grace has been charged with replacing Manti Te'o on the Irish defense.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. – The first time Jarrett Grace saw Manti Te'o in front of him, Grace was a high school sophomore seated on his living room floor.

On the television was a wildly anticipated national signing day event in Hawaii, and like many others, Grace watched Te'o reach to the right and pull on a Notre Dame cap.

Grace had 2 more years at Cincinnati's Colerain High School. So he kept watching.

"I knew he was a tremendous player," Grace said. "That's something I looked for: 'OK, if I go here, I'm going to have this great mentor.'"

Ultimately, Grace arrived at Notre Dame to play linebacker. Ultimately, that meant more watching. But 2 years of idol time behind an admired, snap-hoarding star such as Te'o finally has reached the payoff stage, with Grace ascending into the spot he had been waiting for.

A defensive shakeup resulted in Grace, a 253-pound junior, starting at inside linebacker against Michigan State. He posted 18 of his team-high 28 tackles in the last two games.

Enhanced comfort with an enhanced role might allow coaches to nudge senior Dan Fox back to the Will linebacker spot as Grace seizes an opportunity he never had.

"Even last year, if something were to happen, he was ready to go," cornerback Bennett Jackson said. "He knew all of his assignments. ... He worked day in and day out knowing that he wasn't going to get the reps he wanted in a game. That didn't slow him down any."

Te'o did. A three-down, All-America dervish left precious few reps for any understudy.

Grace's initial sensation was anxiety, adjusting from high school luminary to in-the-shadows backup. He rationalized his predicament via a lack of expectations, figuring he "had that bubble where I could just grow," sponging up knowledge from Te'o and honing his craft.

"The one thing he taught me was to focus on one thing at a time," Grace said. "Obviously he was at the top of that pyramid. You can't get to the top by putting that peak down first. You have to lay the base layer. He told me to go about my game mastering one thing at a time, just being a workman."

So Grace zeroed in on footwork, on using his hands to destroy blocks. Then, from spring practice through the 2013 opener, he worked on settling down.

"Back then, I was just a ball of energy," Grace said of his first non-Te'o spring. "I've definitely matured in my game a lot since then, being able to harness that energy in the right direction and not necessarily just burn gas all the time."

He has been more instinctive and less robotic each week. What's left is Grace taking hold of a unit when he's squarely in the middle of things.

"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," coach Brian Kelly said. "He led in fellowship. Now he's starting to become more vocal as well."

A year ago, the Oklahoma game supercharged Te'o's Heisman Trophy hopes. There is nothing as incandescent at stake for his replacement when the Sooners visit Saturday.

But it is a potent offense on a klieg-lit stage. And it is Grace's job to do something about it.

"You kind of feel like the new guy sometimes, but you recognize, I have just as much invested in this team as these guys do," Grace said. "We all have the same goal. So if I'm going to do something to help the team win, I better do it."

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