Try words like cerebral or galvanizer. Certainly leader would apply.
The 6-foot, 235-pound graduate student is the face, brains and mouthpiece for the Fighting Irish defense.
''Boy, what a representative for our program in the community, in the classroom - class, distinction, and then on the field just a great communicator,'' coach Brian Kelly said.
Schmidt had no trouble communicating his feelings Wednesday, saying he was still livid four days after a 24-22 loss at No. 6 Clemson. It's an unfamiliar feeling. The Irish are 11-2 over two seasons in games Schmidt has started, with the other loss coming last season at then-No. 2 Florida State. Notre Dame lost its final four regular season games last year after Schmidt went down with a left ankle injury against Navy.
Despite missing the final five games, teammates voted him the most valuable player. This season he's tied for second with 29 tackles, including 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a pass breakup and two quarterback hurries.
He led Notre Dame in tackles three weeks ago against Georgia Tech with 10 and is expected to play a big role against when the 15th-ranked Irish (4-1) again face Navy's triple option Saturday. The Midshipmen (4-0) are third in the nation in rushing offense at 340 yards a game.
Kelly said Schmidt's strength helps against the option.
''He's built for that inside out game that you have to play when you're talking about stopping the fullback and then working your way out to the quarterback,'' Kelly said. ''I think these are games that true middle linebackers really enjoy.''
Schmidt, who is from Orange, California, said he just loves playing football.
''There isn't a snap that I don't like playing. Actually I'll take that back, I hate when I'm not playing well. But it's still better than not playing,'' he said. ''I love this game. Even the worst plays in my career I've been having a great time.''
It almost didn't happen. Notre Dame didn't want to offer the undersized Schmidt a scholarship. Air Force offered him a scholarship, but he kept calling and emailing Irish coaches.
''I was hoping to God that Notre Dame would come to take another look at me,'' Schmidt said.
Kelly explained they wanted Schmidt to come as a walk-on, so they had to ''kind of not recruit him.''
''It was like, `Joe, we can't call you.' And he's like, `Why aren't you calling me? I want to come to Notre Dame.''' Kelly said. ''So we're trying to fend this guy off that we want.''
Schmidt said it was tough going from being a standout at Mater Dei High School to sitting on the bench in college.
''You go from being someone that was so valued at your high school to someone that's a scout team guy and you do everything you're supposed to do and transition from a position of leadership to a position of followership, if that's a word,'' Schmidt said. ''You kind of just have to flip your brain. It's a difficult transition, but that's what's great about Notre Dame.''
He's thrived in the transition.
So the question is, if Rudy Ruettiger gets a movie made about his journey about going from a walk-on to getting in for three plays in the waning moments against Georgia Tech 40 years ago, what will be done with the story of the former walk-on who became not only a starter, but a captain?
The usually talkative Schmidt had no answer to that. His coach summed it up nicely, though.
''It's a pretty cool story,'' Kelly said.