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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 22 Asmar Bilal, the only returning starting linebacker

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 227 pounds.
2019-20 year, eligibility: A fifth-year, Bilal has only one season of eligibility remaining.
Depth chart: Expect Bilal to get the starting nod at middle (Mike) linebacker on Labor Day (64 days).
Recruiting: The consensus four-star prospect chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Michign State and Nebraska, among others. Rivals.com rated the U.S. Army All-American as the No. 17 linebacker and No. 246 overall player in the class of 2015.

CAREER TO DATE
After preserving a year of eligibility as a freshman in 2015, Bilal toiled away in a supporting role for two years before becoming the starting Rover last season when Drue Tranquill moved inward to Buck. Bilal had been held back until then by a discomfort in the passing game and not converting his apparent athleticism into natural instincts. Both of those concerns took a back seat pretty quickly with him in the weekly lineup.

Bilal finished with 50 tackles in 13 games, but his work against the pass was just as impressive, even if it resulted in only one pass breakup. He was not as adept at the duty as Tranquill had been, but Bilal was far from the liability once feared.

He notched that pass breakup against Stanford in coverage of Cardinal tight end Kaden Smith. Bilal also managed six tackles, with one for loss, in that 38-17 victory.

“It’s just instinctual awareness,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said the following week. “[Bilal] was always a very talented athletic player, but maybe lacked some of the instinctual kind of traits of the position.”

2015: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2016: 12 games; 29 tackles including three for loss with one sack.
2017: 13 games; 18 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
2019: 13 games; 50 tackles with three for loss and one fumble recovery.

QUOTE(S)
Bilal initially moved from Rover to Buck, just as Tranquill once did, before sliding into the middle at Mike this spring. All along, he was in the starting conversation, arguably the only Notre Dame linebacker consistently on that tier.

“Asmar Bilal has done a great job this spring,” Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea said at the end of spring practices. “He’s going to be a factor for us. He has played two positions even this spring, kind of settled in at Mike. He’s a guy that I think physically and in terms of his game experience enhances the unit.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“Suffice it to say, Bilal did not force the issue for (Mike) Elko or Lea last season. Sure, that was in part thanks to Tranquill’s career year, but it also tied to a pattern seen from Bilal through two seasons of action. For a player who was widely-considered physically ready when he arrived at Notre Dame, Bilal’s potential has yet to translate to on-field production.

“The optimistic view looks at Bilal as yet-unknown, despite being a senior. He has never had enough playing time to even make memorable mistakes. Perhaps all he has needed to shine is some time competing on Saturdays.

“The pessimist reminds, Bilal has not seen time because he has not earned it, despite three years of supposed athletic readiness. Even when behind Tranquill at Rover and the combination of Martini and Te’von Coney at inside linebacker, if Bilal proved himself set to contribute, he would have worked his way into the rotation. That is, after all, what led to Coney’s breakthrough last season.

“Looking forward, the expectation should be the fruits of the middle ground. The realist’s view, in theory. Bilal will get first crack at Rover snaps and, unless he falls flat on his face, he will have some leeway to prove himself. His natural athletic ability affords that gray area. If he reaches 50 tackles, consider it a success. If between tackles for loss, pass breakups and hands in turnovers he equals half Tranquill’s 2017 total of 18.5 notable plays, Bilal will have laid the groundwork for something more.”

2019 OUTLOOK
Bilal did not manage the big plays like Tranquill did, but he reached that tackle projection, a difficult task when playing alongside Coney. Now Bilal must become the Coney of Notre Dame’s 2019 defense, and that is a stiff ask.

The Irish have linebacker talent, but hardly any experience past Bilal and few players ready for all facets of the game. Bilal played well enough at Rover, and has the frame natural to the interior, that it can be presumed he will set a decent baseline. That may be faint praise, but it is, nonetheless.

Notre Dame needs some form of consistency at linebacker, and if it does not get that from Bilal, it may not get it at all. Bilal has challengers at Mike — namely sophomores Shayne Simon and Bo Bauer — but if one of them takes over the starting role, it will be an opportunity granted by Bilal, not a chance earned outright.

Looking beyond total tackles (a starting inside linebacker should break 80, minimum) and big plays, Bilal starting 13 games this year would mean he gave the Irish a keystone in the middle, a contribution needed more than ever with two new defensive tackle starters, as well.

DOWN THE ROAD
This is it for Bilal in college. If he fares decently as the starter this season, a chance at the NFL should come his way. He certainly has the athleticism, at least more than Coney did but less than Tranquill. Bilal will not be a high draft pick — getting drafted at all will hinge on his testing results — but a summer minicamp slot could be the start of a path to some time at the next level.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
Introduction
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 94: Isaiah Foskey, freshman defensive end, consensus four-star
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90: Hunter Spears, defensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver
No. 85: George Takacs, tight end
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 80: Micah Jones, receiver
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right guard, three-year starter
No. 77: Quinn Carroll, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive guard
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive lineman
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, left tackle, two-year starter
No. 73: Andrew Kristofic, offensive tackle, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle, three-year starter
No. 71: John Olmstead, offensive lineman, early-enrolled consensus four-star
No. 69: Aaron Banks, left guard
No. 60: Cole Mabry, offensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, veteran backup offensive lineman
No. 57: Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle
No. 56: John Dirksen, offensive lineman
No. 56: Howard Cross, incoming freshman defensive lineman, consensus four-star
No. 55: Jarrett Patterson, starting center
No. 55: Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle returning from injury
No. 54: Jacob Lacey, consensus four-star defensive tackle, early enrollee
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, senior defensive end
No. 52: Zeke Correll, consensus four-star center, early enrollee
No. 52: Bo Bauer, linebacker, sophomore
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, junior defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, senior inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, senior defensive end
No. 42: Julian Okwara, senior defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, junior defensive tackle
No. 40: Drew White, junior inside linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, junior kicker
No. 35: TaRiq Bracy, sophomore cornerback
No. 35: Marist Liufau, Hawaiian freshman linebacker
No. 34: Jahmir Smith, sophomore running back
No. 34: Osita Ekwonu, inside linebacker, consensus four-star
No. 33: Shayne Simon, sophomore linebacker
No. 31: Jack Lamb, sophomore linebacker
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, junior linebacker
No. 29: Ovie Oghoufo, sophomore linebacker-turned-defensive end
No. 27: J.D. Bertrand, consensus four-star linebacker
No. 25: Braden Lenzy, speedy sophomore receiver
No. 24: Tommy Tremble, sophomore tight end
No. 24: Jack Kiser, early-enrolled freshman linebacker, Mr. Indiana Football
No. 23: Litchfield Ajavon, four-star safety, freshman
No. 23: Kyren Williams, early-enrolled freshman running back
No. 22: Kendall Abdur-Rahman, quarterback-turned-receiver, freshman