SOUTH BEND – Dan Fox was at a crossroads.
The Notre Dame senior had already switched from the inside-linebacker position he started at for 22 of 26 games to the other inside-linebacker spot for the first three games this season.
And after amassing a team-high 24 tackles, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound Fox was replaced in the starting lineup by junior Jarrett Grace.
Fox would still play, backing up Grace and fifth-year senior Carlo Calabrese at both inside-linebacker spots, but it was a blow.
Obviously, I was mad, but I understood, Fox said Wednesday as the Irish (4-2) prepared to play host to USC (4-2) on Saturday night.
I battled through it, and Im ready to go.
Foxs response to losing his starting job was what coach Brian Kelly expected from the fifth-year linebacker.
He was livid. He was mad. And then he handled it like a captain, senior, leader – although he doesnt have a C on his shirt, he handled it the way that I would expect somebody of his character to handle it, Kelly said. He just went to work and worked on getting better.
Look, he had every excuse in the book. The first thing he could have said is, Hey, I went to Mike. Im the Will. You know what I mean? He already had a built-in excuse, didnt use one of them, didnt use any of them. Just went to practice and went to work harder. He could have been disruptive, could have done all those things, but thats why Dan Fox is a special kid.
Fox showed how special he is when Notre Dame needed him most.
Grace broke the fibula in his right leg with 7:40 to play in the second quarter in the Irishs 37-34 win over Arizona State on Oct. 5. Grace had surgery the next day and will miss the rest of the season.
Fox responded by finishing with seven tackles and coming up with two big turnovers against the Sun Devils.
Fox recovered a fumble at Arizona States 27-yard line and returned it to the 21 with 4:20 left in the third quarter to set up a touchdown that put the Irish ahead 24-13 with 4:05 left in the third.
He then added the game-winning score with 1:08 to play when he intercepted a pass at the Sun Devils 14-yard line and after a short run jumped into the end zone for a 37-27 lead.
To see one of our close friends succeed out there is pretty special, said left tackle Zack Martin, who has been one of Foxs roommates for the last three years.
Fox and Calabrese will be the starting combination for the rest of the season with junior Joe Schmidt backing up Fox and senior Kendall Moore behind Calabrese.
Freshman Michael Deeb will be kept in reserve and ready to play if any of those four suffer an injury, but for now, the Irish need Fox to play as well as he handled losing his starting job.
Now weve got to put him in bubble wrap. He knows that, Kelly said. Now hes got a great opportunity to finish his senior year and finish it in an incredible fashion. So were really proud of him. I told him that. Were proud of the way he handled himself in a tough, tough circumstance, and its only going to benefit him down the road.