March 31, 2016

By: John Heisler

A few remnants of that western omelet, toast and fruit from breakfast at the Portage Café probably remained in Jarrett Grace’s stomach when he walked into the weight room at the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at 10:47 a.m. Thursday.

Grace took a brief holiday from his University of Notre Dame classes in pursuit of his MBA in corporate finance (he finishes in May) so he could interview for another job.

This particular interview came in front of more than 70 coaches, scouts and player personnel staff (including Detroit Lions head coach Jim Caldwell, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Mularkey and and seven other members of the Titans staff) from National Football League teams.

An inside linebacker from Cincinnati, Grace qualifies as a bit of an outlier compared to many of those in this process.

He’s not Ronnie Stanley, the Irish offensive tackle likely to be one of the first few picks in the 2016 NFL Draft in April.

He’s not linebacker Jaylon Smith nor receiver Will Fuller, both also expected to be early selections.

He’s not even in the position of the other seven Notre Dame players who were invited to the February NFL Combine.

That made Thursday’s proceedings even more important for Grace because they qualified as his first official chances to impress those pro teams who could give him an opportunity.

Grace had his dream temporarily deferred after breaking his leg midway through the 2013 season in a game against Arizona State. That cost him the entire 2014 season while his rehabilitation continued, and he worked mainly as a backup linebacker in 2015. He made 17 tackles during the regular season, serving primarily with special teams.

Ironically, his most extensive action of the season came in the Fiesta Bowl against home-state Ohio State after All-American Smith’s injury (and another to Smith’s top replacement, freshman Te’von Coney). That meant Grace had to play weak-side linebacker, a spot with which he had little familiarity-and he responded with nine tackles, a tackle for loss and a quarterback hurry against the Buckeyes.

The fifth-year senior may have had greater ambitions at one point in his Irish career, yet he never complained-always bringing his easy smile and positive demeanor to work.

“He came to me as soon as the bowl game ended and said, ‘Can you help? I want to train and get a shot,'” said Irish strength and conditioning assistant Jake Flint. “We talked about a training program and he’s got his schedule with school and it needed to be a little flexible.

“So sometimes he came in and trained with our team and then sprinkled in some other things specifically for his Pro Day. But he’s a self-motivated kid. We built the goals and he executed it. What we did was less about football and more about some of these specific drills. He’s leaned up, and he’s done a great job.

“He was going to do whatever he needed to do. He did a lot of this by himself. We had a lot of good talks. I just tried to keep positive with him.

“He’s gonna go out there and he’s going to look good. We’ve seen what he can do and he’s going to get a shot and that’s all he wants. He’s here every day, and he’s positive and he has energy. He wants to give it one more go and see what he can do. He knows how to play and we all know that.”

Irish linebacker coach Mike Elston echoed those sentiments.

“He’s a champion at everything he does,” said Elston. “As the (2015) season went on I had scouts asking how he had recovered from his injuries. The greatest thing for Jarrett was that he had the opportunity to play in the bowl game, so these teams could see that he could run, he could tackle, he could make plays.

“He was playing out of position, but he’s a big physical linebacker who can play special teams. He’s got great value. Someone’s going to bring him in as a free-agent and he’ll get an opportunity. That’s what he’s shooting for-just needs someone to give him a chance.”

Here’s how Thursday unfolded:

10:47 a.m. ââ’¬” Grace walked into the Gug weight room wearing black shorts, blue Under Armour shoes, compression tights and a gray short-sleeved top with his last name and his number 59 on the back.

The scene was upbeat, almost a fraternity reunion atmosphere as current Irish players watched the Pro Day activities along with a handful of Irish alumni (Zack Martin, Chris Watt, Braxston Cave, Aaron Taylor, among others). And that didn’t count current Notre Dame staffers like Reggie Brooks, Autry Denson, Todd Lyght and Ron Powlus who know a little bit about how all this works.

Irish football strength and conditioning director Paul Longo gathered all 17 Pro Day participants for some last-minute words of wisdom and a team photo. Then, it was off for an hour’s worth of official measurements along with testing in the bench press, vertical jump and standing broad jump.

11:13 a.m. ââ’¬” One of the NFL staffers conducting the workouts read off Grace’s measurements (9 1/8, 32 5/8 and 78 for hand size, arm length and wingspan, respectively). Grace’s vitals came in at 240 pounds and 6-3 3/8 inches.

Current offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey wandered past Grace, gave him a hug and wished him luck.

11:25 a.m.–The first exercise proved a raucous scene as Irish players yelled and screamed their encouragement. With Flint spotting, Grace did 26 reps in the 225 bench press-the same number as Sheldon Day before him and two more than Stanley and Smith after him. Only two linebackers at the Combine did more than Grace, and the lone Irish player to do more was Nick Martin (28 at the Combine).

Players like Grace and Matthias Farley went through the most demanding work of the day, since most combine invitees took part only in the position drills and their choice of other exercises they already may have done at the Combine.

11:37 a.m. ââ’¬” Grace had two attempts at the vertical jump, as players followed in alphabetical order-with Grace following Chris Brown, Amir Carlisle and Farley.

11:41 a.m. ââ’¬” Grace donned neon lime green Under Armour cleats for the broad jump, hitting 9-5 and then 9-6 and earning a “good job J.G.” from a teammate.

12:10 p.m. ââ’¬” Moving to the Loftus Center field, Grace did leg lifts while lying on his back to keep warm.

12:15 p.m. — Grace had two shots at the 40-yard dash (he ran 4.75), as team personnel sat in bleachers on either side of the finish line to time the runs. New York Giants scout Steve Devine had some fun announcing the players, noting that Grace had played four years of basketball and track and 10 years of football.

Taylor, a 1994 Notre Dame grad, marveled at the orchestration involved in the event these days: “We had seven first-round draft picks my junior and senior years combined, and I think there were about 11 people there when we did this and we were back in the dorm not long after noon.”

12:29 p.m. ââ’¬” Grace did two runs at the shuttle drills. Even Irish men’s lacrosse players Matt Landis, Matt Kavanagh and Eddy Glazener stood in the top row of bleachers to observe.

Once the position drills began, Grace had a long wait because every other position group went before him.

He sat leisurely pumping on the stationary bicycle several times, grabbed a bottle of water and did other flexing exercises while waiting as patiently as he could. At one point Elston came by to chat.

“They want to see me drop in coverage,” Grace offered, now back in gold football cleats.

1:55 p.m. ââ’¬” Detroit Lions secondary coach Alan Williams provided the drill instructions to Grace and defensive backs Farley, Eilar Hardy and Elijah Shumate.

2:03 p.m.-Grace backpedaled 15 yards, then turned, ran full speed and looked for the football. There were various directed cone drills in which Grace and the others were asked to change direction, moving forward, backward and laterally.

One NFL scout suggested Grace may well be a priority free agent: “He’s got a good motor.”

2:12 p.m. ââ’¬” Grace’s arms were wet with perspiration as he worked his way through the set of drills.

2:17 p.m. ââ’¬” Grace dropped back five yards, then sprinted to the sideline, looking for the football. All the drills were videotaped and each team will receive a copy.

Williams offered a comment on expectations, and Grace responded, “Turn and run? Got it, yes, sir.”

2:23 p.m. ââ’¬” Grace cut outside, changed direction to the middle of the field as the ball was thrown his way. Williams modified the drills for Grace to an extent, considering the linebacker was working with three defensive backs.

And with that, Grace’s audition was complete.

“My goal is to play in the NFL, so you can’t sacrifice your training and your diet and your rest,” said Grace.

“In all my free time, the strength staff here has been incredible. I’d spend about two and a half hours a day over here. Sundays were a little lighter ââ’¬”I’d focus on the mobility piece and recovery-along with doing all my homework. You’re talking about a full day every single day-that’s been my semester.”

Grace is taking 17 credits this spring: “It’s very much a full load-with finance and accounting courses that are a little outside my comfort zone (Grace graduated last May with a 3.186 grade-point average in management consulting). It’s not this glamorous thing where I’m off training somewhere and somebody’s doing everything for me.”

He lives off campus with a couple of buddies and he cooks all his own meals.

“A lot was going to hinge on today when teams would have a look at me,” said Grace. “I’ve heard from one team and that will pick up now.

“I was pleased today with what I did. And, hey, I chose to take this MBA program because it’s a great opportunity and I’m going to make the most of everything I have.”

Grace admitted to being “a little nervous coming in”-though having teammates Nick Martin and Matt Hegarty stay with him for a few days lightened the mood.

“I was a little restless, but I got some good nights of sleep this week leading up to this.

“Most days I’ve been working out by myself. I can’t thank those guys (Longo and Flint) enough. They have full-time jobs and their own schedules and they always did whatever they could to help me.”

One of only three Irish players to take part in every drill Thursday, Grace recalled days and nights when he would be at Loftus running by himself with the lights off.

“It’s all about getting an opportunity-showing I can work.”

John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a 1976 graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.