SOUTH BEND — Drue Tranquill has a pretty good hunch why Notre Dame chose to have linebacker Asmar Bilal as one of the four players available to local reporters this week.
Not that Bilal, fresh off a team-high, eight-tackle performance against New Mexico, hadn’t earned the attention with his play on the field. But Tranquill, a former Irish captain, a current Los Angeles Charger and close friend of Bilal, knows the Irish staff trusts his ability to not create waves in a media setting.
“That’s exactly why they brought him up,” Tranquill said Thursday morning. “We talk all the time about no bulletin board material. Asmar is the last one that’s going to give you that. He’s going to talk about the process and the game plan and focusing on that.”
On Tuesday night, with cameras surrounding him, Bilal stiff-armed multiple opportunities to talk about Saturday’s opponent, No. 3 Georgia (3-0). He was asked what makes Georgia’s Jake Fromm such a good quarterback.
“I’m not sure,” Bilal said. “We’re just focusing on the game plan and what my coaches say.”
Bilal laughed soon after he started his second sentence. It’s almost like he knew how little of an actual answer he was going to provide.
The reporter followed up with another question about how Fromm stands out on film hoping for more details. Access denied.
“Our preparation isn’t going to deviate or change just for this individual player,” Bilal said. “It’s just like focusing on our game plan and what we have to do.”
Moments later, after the cameras were no longer focused on him, Bilal was asked how he felt about being in the spotlight for Georgia week and doing interviews.
“I wasn’t excited about it, not going to lie,” Bilal said. “I’m not much of a media guy.”
Tranquill has teased Bilal, who graduated in January with a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology, about his lack of interest in interviews in the past. The two have a history of having in-depth discussions on a wide variety of topics, but they are quite the contrast when it comes to dealing with reporters.
Tranquill was trotted out for interviews countless times during his Notre Dame career. Even with his busy schedule as a father, husband and NFL football player, Tranquill scheduled a phone interview for this story at 6 a.m. his time in California.
Bilal doesn’t take to social media much either. His last Instagram post came in June. He last authored a tweet in May.
“Asmar is somebody who doesn’t give his trust away easily,” Tranquill said. “He’s somebody who you have to build a relationship with. He likes to keep it tight. He likes to keep it within the group and within the team and focused on our family.
“A little bit of it is he just wants to focus on our game plan and focus on what he needs to do to be the best on the field.”
If Bilal wants to be the best, he’d be wise to listen to Tranquill. The two have followed similar paths since 2017.
In the first year of Notre Dame’s new scheme under defensive coordinator Mike Elko, both Tranquill and Bilal moved to rover. Tranquill had been playing safety. Bilal had been playing weakside linebacker.
Tranquill won the position battle over Bilal that season and finished 2017 third on the team in tackles behind inside linebackers Te’von Coney and Nyles Morgan. Then in 2018, Tranquill made the transition to the buck inside linebacker spot, which allowed Bilal to take over the starting rover role under linebackers coach turned defensive coordinator Clark Lea.
Tranquill thrived in his new role. He finished third on the team in tackles once again and rarely left the field. He still played in all 13 games despite a broken left hand and a high ankle sprain. Tranquill’s success led to him being selected in the fourth round of the 2019 NFL Draft by the Chargers.
As Tranquill went through the NFL Draft process, Bilal was making the move to inside linebacker as a returning graduate student. With Notre Dame’s defense forced to replace Tranquill and Coney, Bilal was given opportunities at both inside linebacker positions — buck and mike — throughout spring practice and preseason. He has since settled primarily into the buck role as the season has started.
In the season opener against Louisville, Bilal did little to impress. The 6-foot-2, 227-pound linebacker rarely showed the athleticism that made him an intriguing linebacker prospect coming out of Indianapolis Ben Davis as a four-star recruit.
Twelve days later, Bilal looked like a completely different player. He shed blockers. He made plays in the backfield on two tackles for a loss. He covered a lot of ground for the Irish defense.
“He took a tremendous step in this last game compared to the first,” Tranquill said. “He looked a lot more comfortable. I know firsthand how uncomfortable it can feel playing inside the box for your first time with things happening quickly.
“It looked like things slowed down a little bit for him there in the second game. I expect him to continue to grow and make strides here in game three.”
Tranquil and Bilal typically communicate with each other on a regular basis. Before Notre Dame played against New Mexico and Tranquill’s Chargers played against the Detroit Lions last weekend, the two caught up on life.
Tranquill will send a text message here and there offering advice on technique or anything else Bilal needs. Even though they’re close friends, Bilal was a little surprised that Tranquill would still have time to offer guidance with everything going on in his own life.
“It’s been helpful because he’s an experienced player,” Bilal said. “He was a captain here. He did all the things at an exceptional level. Just to have him in my corner and to coach me up is great.”
The transition from rover to buck will take time for Bilal to fully master. It all makes sense when Tranquill explains it.
“The basis of being a great linebacker is instincts and trusting your keys,” Tranquill said. “When you see things happen, it’s about reacting quickly instead of second-guessing and making sure you saw what you saw.”
“When you don’t have the experience in there, you might second-guess yourself or potentially lack confidence in what you’re seeing. So you’re hesitant in making your reads because you’re seeing things happen but you don’t want to make a mistake. You’re taking longer to react.
“That all comes with experience and time. You can accelerate that by watching tape and putting more time into it. It looked like he did, because he looked great in week two.”
That’s not just a friend complimenting a friend either. Head coach Brian Kelly saw the improvement too.
“His lines were better to the football,” Kelly said. “He’s really getting to that point where he’s playing and closing space to the football with really high-level, elite traits. The guy has physical traits. So now he’s bringing along some of the things that he was lacking experientially in terms playing the position. We’re starting to see that. That’s coming.”
Bilal will need to continue that upward trend if the Irish are going to slow down’s Georgia’s high-powered offense. The Bulldogs rank in the top 10 nationally in rushing offense (286.7 yards per game), total offense (565.3 yards per game) and scoring offense (49.3 points per game).
Those numbers don’t mean much to Bilal. He’s too worried about his own game. At least that’s all he’s willing to say.
“The opponent’s really our self,” Bilal said. “We just have to focus on our self, focus on our mental, technical and tactical approach to the game — just our side of the game. Coach is going to put us in a great position. We just have to execute.”