Drue Tranquill returned to Notre Dame for a fifth season for a few reasons. Being named a two-time captain may have been in-line with the less tangible of them, but it was not necessarily a driving motivation. The vague pieces of Tranquill’s return are the usual platitudes of college football, but when he delivers them, they include such urgency and sincerity, the rote lines come across as genuine, or at least close to it.
“There is just something special about college football, and you can’t necessarily put your finger on it until you’ve actually experienced it and played it,” Tranquill said Tuesday. “In my heart, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this thing for one more year and finish what we started.”
More practically, Tranquill’s return should also serve to enhance his NFL future. The safety-turned-rover with two ACL tears projects as a linebacker in the NFL, if he is to have a professional football career at all. To date, Tranquill has never played as a traditional linebacker. To at least some degree, that inexperience would lower his NFL draft profile.
Both Tranquill and the Irish coaching staff knew as much, so the latter made a position switch part of its pitch to Tranquill in recruiting him to return. Tranquill’s first year under linebackers coach Clark Lea’s tutelage yielded better results than most may have expected, so another season with Lea would certainly help him develop further, especially if 2018 was spent as a linebacker. Right?
Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly confirmed the position move Monday, and Tranquill acknowledged it as the on-field logic to his return.
“It was coach Kelly and a general understanding that was what I was going to play in the NFL,” Tranquill said. “… I knew in mind I need development at that position, so it was a general understanding that [the Irish coaches] had gotten feedback from NFL teams, I had obviously gotten feedback from NFL teams, and we all understood this is what I needed to develop at.”
Certainly, Tranquill could take the risk of getting that development in the NFL. In that situation, football would be his only obligation, quite literally his job in every respect. The additional year of earning power could offset the reduced salary of a lower draft spot. Then again, there would be no assurance of getting drafted or landing on a 53-man roster come fall. NFL teams are not often in the business of developing projects with long-term views. Coaches and front offices need to win now.
At Notre Dame, Tranquill would be guaranteed that some of development, likely enhancing his draft prospects, although also taking on the risk of injury. Such is the dilemma many such players face every year.
“It was just a decision of do I want to go and get that development in the league, or do I want to come back and develop under coach,” Tranquill said. “I think the best decision for me was to come back and develop under coach Lea.”
There will be no switching back, both for the sake of the Irish and out of respect for Tranquill’s future. Notre Dame has a few possible replacements at rover. There are no such ready possibilities at linebacker.
“Drue’s got to play the Buck, he’s got to play it well, and we’ve got to settle it on him,” Kelly said. “That’s where his reps are going to be this spring.”
The move will create challenges for Tranquill, many of them similar to the lessons he learned in moving from safety to rover. Moving closer to the line of scrimmage and now closer to the center of the action reduces the time he can take to react. His duties become even more specific, but still depend on reads of the offense’s intentions.
An engineering major, Tranquill spends his classroom time moving task-by-task in order to accomplish the larger objective. At linebacker, that broader view will inform his task.
“It’s going to be a challenge in terms of being able to expand my vision and see those other keys,” he said. “It’s something I think is really going to benefit my game and my ability to just see the defense as a whole.”
And, it should aid his NFL dreams.
Now who at rover?
Kelly said rising senior Asmar Bilal will get first crack at rover, an easy assumption anyway. He then referred to Bilal as a “big rover.” Notre Dame lists Bilal at 6-foot-2, 225 pounds, which is actually eight pounds lighter than Tranquill on a similarly-sized frame. Perhaps big was not the most precise adjective. Rather, Bilal is even more run-focused than Tranquill. If the Irish face an offense far more reliant on the pass, to the point of using four receivers more often than one tight end, Bilal’s role may need to be minimized.
In such a situation, Kelly mentioned rising sophomores Jeremiah Owusu-Koromoah and safety-turned-linebacker Isaiah Robertson as options, along with rising junior safety-turned-linebacker D.J. Morgan. Owusu-Koromoah was recruited by former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko (along with Lea) for the exact purpose of being a rover of the future. Incoming freshman Shayne Simon was sought for similar reasons.
The last option, also included by Kelly, would be to default to a nickel coverage package, turning the rover into another cornerback. Elko actually did that frequently last season, deploying rising senior Shaun Crawford, both physical and speedy, to disrupt offenses.
“There are going to be a number of guys that have the opportunity to be that next guy.”
Compare that array of varied possibilities to the lack of depth behind Tranquill and rising senior Te’von Coney at linebacker. Kelly expects Bilal to cross-train to protect against injury to either Tranquill or Coney, and after that the only name mentioned was rising junior Jonathan Jones.
“Jonathan’s got to do a great job of being a guy there that can give Te’von a blow when he needs one,” Kelly said.