SOUTH BEND — Notre Dame linebacker Dan Fox didn’t take losing his job as the starting inside linebacker last month well.
“He was livid,” coach Brian Kelly said. “And then he handled it like a captain, senior, leader — although he doesn’t have a “C’’ on his shirt, he handled it the way that I would expect somebody of his character to handle it. He just went to work and worked on getting better.”
Fox concedes being upset when coaches started Jarrett Grace ahead of him against Michigan State in the fourth game. The fifth-year senior from Rocky River, Ohio, had started nine games last season at the other inside linebacker spot, splitting time with Carlo Calabrese. He had learned to play the position despite missing spring practice after undergoing shoulder surgery.
The Irish coaches planned to use Fox as both inside linebacker positions, with him and Garrett filling the spot vacated with the graduation of Manti Te’o. With the Irish defense struggling, the coaches started Grace even though Fox was leading the team in tackles.
“Obviously I was mad, but I understood,” Fox said.
Cornerback Bennett Jackson said part of the reason why Fox lost that starting position was a knee injury.
“It caused him to play a little slower,” Jackson said.
Fox wouldn’t talk about that, saying he wanted to stay away from the “injury thing.” He continued to share time with Grace and Calabrese, although his playing time decreased. Despite being upset, Fox said he focused on working in practice.
“I thought you could battle through any adversity. Stick to how you were taught and how the coaches teach you and you’ll be fine,” he said.
He was ready when a broken leg ended Grace’s season midway through the second quarter against Arizona State two weeks ago. Fox responded with a fumble recovery that set up a touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 24-13 lead late in the third quarter. With 68 seconds left, he intercepted a pass by Taylor Kelly and returned it 14 yards for a touchdown, diving into the end zone to give the Irish a 37-27 lead.
Offensive linemen Zack Martin and Chris Watt raced out onto the field to celebrate their roommate’s first career interception.
“We gave him some crap because he could have just gone down and we could have ended the game right there. But he got his touchdown and it was nice,” Martin said.
The Irish (4-2) will be counting on Fox on Saturday as they try to beat Southern California (4-2) at Notre Dame Stadium for the first time since 2001, seeking to end a five-game home losing streak. Fox said the older players need to make sure younger players understand there will be added excitement as the Irish play just their third night game at home in the past 23 seasons.
“You’ve got to let them know it’s going to be a little bit of a whirlwind,” he said.
Fox said after an off week he is feeling healthy. The injury to Grace leaves Joe Schmidt, a former walk-on, as his backup. Kelly joked that the Irish need to wrap Fox in bubble wrap the rest of the season, but said it’s an ideal situation for Fox.
“He’s got a great opportunity to finish his senior year and finish it in an incredible fashion. So we’re really proud of him. I told him that,” Kelly said. “We’re proud of the way he handle himself in a tough, tough circumstance, and it’s only going to benefit him down the road.”