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Irish A-to-Z: Asmar Bilal

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It is freshman year all over again for linebacker Asmar Bilal. The rising sophomore, who wore a redshirt in 2015, likely spent more time working with Brian VanGorder’s defense in 15 spring practices than he did all of last season.

That’s what happens when Jaylon Smith departs for the NFL and Te’von Coney and Greer Martini spend the offseason recovering from injuries. Those circumstances cleared the way for Bilal to take center stage at Will linebacker this spring, a position that’ll look quite different than it did the past two seasons when America’s most talented linebacker roamed the field.

No slouch himself, Bilal has more than just long dreads in common with Smith. With a body that also looks chiseled from granite and the speed of a safety, there are great expectations for the Indianapolis native.

 

ASMAR BILAL
6’2″, 230 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 27, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A four-star recruit, Bilal picked Notre Dame over Michigan after a competitive recruitment. He had offers from Michigan State, Missouri, Nebraska, Tennessee and a dozen other programs, too.

Bilal was an Army All-American, second-team on the MaxPreps All-American team and was Indiana’s defensive player of the year on the American Family Insurance All-USA team. He was a four-star prospect and a 247 composite Top 200 player.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

The year of eligibility was saved, keeping Bilal off of special teams. But all else held true:

At the very least, I see Bilal wreaking some havoc on special teams. But if there’s an opening on the field with this defense, it’s at safety. Perhaps Bilal could serve as a situational defensive back, the type of in-the-box plugger that Drue Tranquill excelled at in 2014.

The reality of the situation is a year of learning and gaining weight for Bilal. With Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace departing after this season, and Jaylon Smith having quite a choice on his hands as well, the depth chart could turn over after this season—turning next spring into maybe an even more critical time than this fall in Bilal’s development.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bilal’s primary competition at Will linebacker is classmate Te’von Coney, who had worked his way into the two-deep behind Jaylon Smith, playing briefly in the Fiesta Bowl before suffering his own major injury. While Coney had to watch spring ball as his shoulder healed, Bilal took reps for the two of them.

While it’s far from decided, Coney looks like the first choice in the starting lineup for VanGorder and Mike Elston. That’s not to say that the rotation will be as limited as it was last season—this group of linebackers might very well be patched together by scheme and circumstance.

None of that changes Bilal’s potential. A football player who came to Notre Dame needing to add mass to his frame and learn the intricacies of playing linebacker, Bilal’s high school exploits included a lot of time at safety, a tackling machine that looked more search-and-destroy than fully understanding the nuances of gap control and positional responsibilities.

Bilal put on the weight, up to 230 pounds this spring, looking like a linebacker not a DB. Now the mental aspect of the game will likely dictate how quickly Bilal’s able to deploy his physical skills and use them for good. We’ll get a nice progress report on where the coaches think he is come Texas.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that he could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented young defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like Kona Schwenke and Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and Smith long gone.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas
Alex Bars

Irish A-to-Z: Alex Bars

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Even as he recovered from a broken ankle suffered late in the 2015 season, Alex Bars made the move everybody expected from him this spring. The rising junior rose to the top of the depth chart at right tackle, filling the hole Mike McGlinchey left behind and potentially solidifying the rebuilt core of Notre Dame’s front five.

It was a move that felt preordained, especially if you’d been paying attention to the coaching staff’s belief in Bars. A high-level recruit, an impressive redshirt and capable in spot duty in 2015, assuming all goes according to plan, the move to the starting lineup gives Bars the chance to spend three seasons in the starting lineup of one of the country’s most competitive position groups.

Now he’s got to perform.

 

ALEX BARS
6’6″, 320 lbs.
Junior, No. 71, RT

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

A top-100 recruit who chose Notre Dame over Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Stanford—and a host of other schools. Bars was an Under Armour All-American, a USA Today All-American, and the Rotary Lombardi Chip Off the Old Block Award winner, given to the South’s best lineman.

His father Joe played linebacker for Notre Dame in the early-80s, while two of his brothers played major college football. Bars is a blue-chipper by every measure.

 

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Saved a year of eligibility and did not participate.

Sophomore Season (2015): Played in six games, starting against Navy and USC at guard before breaking his ankle. Served as primary backup at both tackle positions and guard until his injury.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Spot on here, both about the time-share being difficult and injuries. Unfortunately, Bars was the lineman who suffered—not finding as much time behind Nelson and then ending his year with a broken ankle.

Sharing time isn’t easy, especially on the offensive line. But Kelly was adamant this spring that he’ll need to find snaps for Bars to make sure his development continues, and sharing time with Quenton Nelson makes the most sense.

Of course, injuries also happen. And right now, it looks like Bars is the No. 1 replacement at every spot but center. So while a clean bill of health will likely be best for the best Irish offensive line of the Kelly era, an injury will likely just mean more time for the talented second-year player to make his mark, a nice benefit of the impressive depth chart the Irish have assembled.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Bars looks like another potential NFL offensive lineman, something Harry Hiestand is churning out at an impressive rate. While we won’t know just how good he is until we see him on the edge against Texas, Bars is the type of lineman who’d have started too early in his career at left tackle in previous eras, forced to learn on the fly like Ryan Harris or Sam Young.

The staff was careful with Bars this spring, not rushing the 320-pounder back until his surgically repaired ankle could handle it. And while they explored the idea of keeping him inside at the vacant right guard position, it’s only to obvious that Bars’ skill-set—not to mention the remaining personnel—needed him to play on the edge.

With three years left there’s plenty of time to grow at the position, while also building from a position of strength. That’s the sign of great positional depth.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

I assume a healthy, strong season from Bars. I think the time working inside could help him in the running game, while his athleticism should make pass blocking feel natural, especially with great length and feet.

Of course, he’s still a first-year starter. Expecting a year like Quenton Nelson or Mike McGlinchey had might be too much, but there’s no reason not to set a similar bar. From the moment Bars stepped foot on campus, Kelly knew he had a special player.

Hunter Bivin can play tackle in a pinch. Freshman Tommy Kraemer might be able to as well. But for the Irish to have their best offensive line, they need Bars to anchor the right side. I expect him to do so in 2016.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams
Josh Barajas

Irish A-to-Z: Josh Barajas

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It’s a fresh start for linebacker Josh Barajas. One of Notre Dame’s most-heralded recruits last season, Barajas’ season was short-circuited after a training camp injury and fitness level struggles.

That made for a less than ideal first impression for an Army All-American who many expected could be an early contributor for the Irish. But with a stacked linebacking corps and no clear path to the field, a redshirt season might have been the best case scenario even injury free and ready to contribute.

Fast forward to a spring where Barajas was one of the few healthy bodies on the field at his position, and it’s a completely different scenario entering 2016. Still retaining his freshman eligibility, that type of fresh start looks like one Barajas is intent on seizing.

 

JOSH BARAJAS
6’1.5″, 240 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 30, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

U.S. Army All-American. Consensus 4-Star player. All-State Indiana.  247 named Barajas the state’s top prospect. He also earned solid reviews in San Antonio, his first national exposure as a football player.

Had offers from Michigan, Penn State, Ohio State and Oregon among others.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Not sure I could’ve missed this one by much more. I’ll re-tee and look to salvage a bogey.

When a team returns the majority of its defense, it’s always difficult to see how a freshman fits into the equation before ever actually seeing him on the field. But in Barajas’ case, his versatility could be a great piece in sub-packages, and certainly could lead to him seeing the field on coverage units.

While he doesn’t have the look of a pass rusher, you’ve got to wonder if the departure of Bo Wallace might allow the Irish staff to kick the tires on Barajas as a hand-on-the-ground pass rusher. It’s a move that got Kolin Hill on the field as a freshman, and most believe that Barajas is at least as good of an athlete.

Ultimately, the 2015 season looks like one where just about every freshman defender will be hoping to earn a bit role in the larger unit. That’s likely the plan for Barajas, who needs to gain some weight before he’s big enough to survive in the trenches.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Barajas was thrown into the fire this spring, given a look at as many different linebacker positions as you could put him. That couldn’t hurt for a guy who earned the ultimate compliment from his head coach after committing himself to Paul Longo and company.

“Josh has probably remade himself physically more than any player on our team,” Kelly said this spring. “He looks really good and he’s running well.”

That type of praise shouldn’t be taken lightly. But I can’t help but temper enthusiasm until I see Barajas fit into the Irish plans, either as a special teams demon or as a situational player. With the youth and inexperience at linebacker, Barajas could play his way into a contributor or be stuck in a back-up role. That type of thing will be determined by his ability to learn quickly and find the football.

Still, you’ve got to consider pedigree. And Barajas has plenty of that, with the Army All-American game not far in the past, nor offers from some elite schools. But watching snippets from spring ball and three tackles in the Blue-Gold game make this still too hard to peg.

 

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Just reading between the lines and looking at the depth chart makes projecting Barajas’ 2016 difficult. At a shade under 6’2″, he’s less of a candidate to play as an edge rusher, and position coach Mike Elston said this spring that the current plan is for Barajas to work at middle linebacker behind Nyles Morgan.

Barajas spent some time early in spring sharing reps at Sam linebacker, working behind James Onwualu. But with Greer Martini back this fall, those are two very good players he’ll have to beat out, an unlikely scenario even if Barajas looks like a new man. The Will linebacker spot also looks like a job that Te’von Coney and Asmar Bilal will share, with Martini also capable of playing there if needed.

Can Barajas make an impact this season? Sure. But he’ll have to make even bigger strides this summer and fall than he did in his impressive spring.

 

2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Josh Adams

 

Irish land their 2018 QB in blue-chipper Phil Jurkovec

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Notre Dame landed their quarterback of the (kind-of-distant) future in Pennsylvania prospect Phil Jurkovec. One of the top passers in the 2018 recruiting cycle, Jurkovec pledged to the Irish on Monday, ending his recruitment well ahead of schedule—kick-starting the 2018 recruiting class with one of the biggest commitments offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Mike Sanford has landed.

Jurkovec, whose sterling sophomore season landed him offers from Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Penn State UCLA and more, was a priority target for Sanford and head coach Brian Kelly. Per the South Bend Tribune’s Tyler James, he was the only quarterback Notre Dame offered, a gamble that paid off on Monday when Jurkovec committed.

Ranked 247’s top dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2018, Jurkovec’s toolbox is filled with interesting skills. At 6-foot-5, he has the height you want in a passer and a live arm to match. He also showed more than capable legs, running for 1,250 yards and 11 touchdowns for his Pine-Richland High School.

Already invited to the U.S. Army All-American game, Jurkovec has the makings of a five-star recruit, though he’s still two full seasons from reaching college. So while there’s every reason to look at this as a huge recruiting win—and make no mistake, it is one—it’s a relationship that the Irish coaching staff will need to work hard to keep, a recruitment that won’t be done until Jurkovec is on campus or signed his letter of intent.

But don’t tell that to Jurkovec. He sounded like a mature kid who checked off all the boxes before making the decision.

“I have really thought about it for a long time and it’s not a rash decision. I have gone over all the different aspects that I want in a school and Notre Dame fits them all,” Jurkovec told Rivals.com.

The Gibsonia, PA native is the first member of the 2018 recruiting class. He joins the 10-man 2017 class (with quarterback Avery Davis already committed) as pledges to Brian Kelly.

 

 

Irish A-to-Z: Josh Adams

SOUTH BEND, IN - NOVEMBER 14:  Josh Adams #33 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish rushes for a 98-yard touchdown against the Wake Forest Demon Deacons during the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium on November 14, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana.  (Photo by Jon Durr/Getty Images)
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Nobody predicted Josh Adams to have a record-breaking debut season in South Bend. But after the two-deep depth chart was plundered before halftime of the season opener, the Pennsylvania native stepped in and turned in one of the most surprising performance of 2015.

Now for an encore. With Tarean Folston back and C.J. Prosise gone, Adams has a similar opportunity in front of him. He also has a year of football under his belt. With his blend of size, speed and power, Adams could serve as the unheralded leading man of a young and talented Irish team intent on surprising people this fall.

Let’s kick off our annual Irish A-to-Z series with a playmaker who could make take a big step forward after a record-setting freshman campaign.

 

JOSH ADAMS
6’1.5″, 219 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 33, RB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Still managed a four-star ranking by 247Sports’s composite, impressive considering he missed his junior season while recovering from an ACL injury. He returned as a 4A All-State running back, with a 1,600-yard bounce back season that ended after 10 games with an ankle sprain.

Adams had offers from Penn State, Pitt, Rutgers and Stanford (though never visited Palo Alto). But he picked Notre Dame in late June, with the Irish showing faith in his recovery from injury and being immediately rewarded for it last fall.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2015): Led Irish running backs with a 7.1 yards-per-carry average, running for a school record 835 yards from scrimmage, breaking Darius Walker’s 2004 record. His 98-yard touchdown run against Wake Forest set a Notre Dame Stadium record. Broke 100 yards against UMass, Wake Forest, Pitt and Stanford. Averaged 5.6 yards per carry against Ohio State, scoring his sixth touchdown of the season.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Who saw what happened last year coming? Not me. But the snaps were there for the young backs and Adams responded.

(Needless to say, Adams isn’t becoming a safety any time soon—especially as the Irish rebuild the running back depth chart with Adams as the potential star.)

There doesn’t seem to be any snaps for a young ball carrier on this roster, unless one of these guys does something mighty special during fall camp. And while the Irish staff feels like they found a special football player in Adams, there’s no hurry to get him on the field.

While Tony Alford was the one who recruited Adams, it’s worth noting that it’ll be Autry Denson who’ll develop him. And Denson’s career at Notre Dame, not to mention his DNA as a player who maxed out his ability, will serve Adams well, especially as the lesser heralded prospect of the two backs in the 2015 recruiting class.

By all reports, Adams fits the bill of an “RKG.” Here’s what his coach Tom Hetrick said after Signing Day.

“This is a special day because Josh is a special kind of kid,” Hetrick said. “He always does the right thing. He’s a great ambassador for our program.”

With the depth chart at running back a veteran group, that mental makeup will pay dividends if it takes a few years to see the field. But with size and speed, Adams could find his way onto the field via special teams, and sure shares the profile of a safety if we’re looking at position switch candidates.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

Sky high. Adams has all the ingredients you want to see in a prolific back, including opportunity. While Tarean Folston might return to the starting lineup, Adams’ ability to hit the home run, as well as be powerful on the interior, is too much to ignore.

One quote that’s striking to me still stands out from Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference. And it’s more apparent now than ever before.

“He has not played a lot of football,” Kelly said. “With the speed that he possesses, we think he can be whatever he wants to be.  We can’t wait to develop him.”

So far, so good.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Pencil me in for a ho-hum 1,000 yard season and 10 touchdowns. And that’s assuming that Tarean Folston has a nice year and Dexter Williams finds a role in this offense as well.

Of course, Adams has to stay healthy, and if we’ve seen anything these past few years, it’s that one Notre Dame running back is going to get bitten by the injury bug. But with a full calendar year in the strength program, and maturity and confidence that position coach Autry Denson praised this spring, Adams is going to be one of the faces of the offense this season, especially as the Irish look for answers in the passing game to replace Will Fuller, Chris Brown and Amir Carlisle.

Depending on how optimistic you want to be, it’s not inconceivable to think that Adams could find himself in elite company next season. While he won’t likely climb into the Fournette, McCaffery conversation at the top of the heap, he’s got potential that’s not far off that.

Not sure of that? Just go back and look at the numbers and game tape. A freshman season averaging over seven-yards a carry and with speed to take a 98-yarder to the house? Adams could turn in a work horse season and explode statistically—especially if the Irish offense turns to the ground to move the unit.