Notre Dame LB target Asmar Bilal focused on season while torn on recruitment

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

INDIANAPOLIS — The game was in hand, but Asmar Bilal wasn’t going to leave the field.

With his Ben Davis team leading, 28-0, Bilal remained determined to deliver a shutout with his fellow defenders. The four-star senior linebacker draped slot receivers repeatedly trying to get open down the sideline. No balls came his way.

He remembered the talk of an exposed defense after allowing 50 points in a week 3 win over Pike.

"That was a little disrespectful, knowing we have great athletes on D,” Bilal said. “It was a good accomplishment to come out and shut them out.”

The Ben Davis shutout of Center Grove came six days after Notre Dame blanked Michigan, 31-0, a matchup of the final two schools Bilal is considering. Instead of making the trip to South Bend to watch the game, Bilal stayed at home. He did the same this weekend when the Irish hosted Purdue in Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night in his hometown.

The choices to miss out on opportunities to see the Irish in person are less a reflection of his interest in Notre Dame and more an illustration of his hesitance with the recruiting process. It comes from the same kid who tells his head coach, Mike Kirschner, to keep his recruiting mail sent to the school.

“He realized after a while it's just stuff,” Kirschner said. “It's really not very important stuff. We had to encourage him to follow the coaches on Twitter because he wasn't big on Twitter and social media in any way, shape or form.”

Knowing the way Bilal felt about the recruiting process, Kirschner encouraged him to make a commitment before his senior season. Bilal just wasn't ready.

"I tried to get him to do it before the season started. That way he wouldn't have to deal with phone calls or interviews and all that,” Kirschner said. “He's so level-headed and just goes with the flow. For some kids it becomes an emotional problem and they can't balance it.”

Bilal won’t show that emotion. He seems certain that a decision will work itself out eventually and shrugs off any urgency. When asked, Bilal suggests that he may visit Notre Dame for the Stanford game in October. Another visit to Michigan is likely to happen as well. He’s just not ready to nail anything down.

“Coming down to this decision with the final two, it's kind of difficult,” Bilal said. “They both have what I like in a school. It's difficult making that final decision.”

Four-star transformation

Kirschner saw something in Bilal when he was a freshman, but it wasn’t a good thing.

“Watching him play freshman football on the freshman team — I'm not going to mince words — I thought he was lazy,” Kirschner said. “Although I thought he was talented, I didn't think he exerted himself.”

As Bilal developed, Kirschner would learn his initial impressions were more a read of the talented linebacker’s personality than his work ethic.

“When you talk to him, he's really laid-back about everything,” Kirschner said. “When I'd see him play on Saturday mornings in games, this isn't the same kid I watched practice. This is a different kid. The maturity over the four years has been phenomenal.”

Bilal didn’t take long to impress Kirschner as a sophomore. Limited to mostly special teams duty, Bilal still made an impact. In the season opener against Cathedral, Bilal caused some damage.

“I still remember he was on the back wall on our kickoff return team. He fielded a kickoff against Cathedral and the kid tried to come up and tackle him and he just crushes the kid,” Kirschner said. “The other kid breaks his collarbone, falls down and Asmar keeps running. I'm thinking, 'Wow, that's different for a sophomore.'”

Following a junior season with 106 tackles, the college scholarship offers started to roll Bilal’s way. He hasn’t let the attention shift his focus. The 6-foot-3, 205-pound linebacker worked himself into an athletic specimen. He power cleans 300 pounds. He bench presses 350. And he doesn’t take any breaks.

"He's the perfect, consummate team-player,” Kirschner said. “He doesn't miss workouts. He doesn't miss practice. He doesn't miss school. He wants to be on special teams. If we let him, he'd play offense.”

Not many four-star prospects take reps with the scout team.

“When we're running our first-team offense against our scouts, he gets out there and runs scout defense. He doesn't have to,” Kirschner said. “Sometimes we have to tell him to get off the field to give other guys a chance. He'd just as soon play. There's no, 'I might get hurt,’ or ‘That's someone else's job.' He never looks at things that way. He just plays football."

Senior stretch

More accomplishments will come Bilal’s way. The chase for a state championship has started strong with a 4-0 start for Ben Davis. He was named a U.S. Army All-American this summer. But Bilal’s personal goals aren’t as grandiose.

"Just basically being a better leader, working in the classroom,” Bilal listed as senior goals. “Hopefully I'll get straight 'As' this semester. I'm just trying to do anything I can to improve."

Bilal’s improvements were on display in Friday night’s 28-0 victory with Irish defensive line coach Mike Elston in attendance. Playing inside linebacker, Bilal tallied six solo tackles and assisted on six more. Center Grove avoided throwing any passes over the middle of the field where Bilal was roaming and often ran the ball away from him. His impact was limited, but Center Grove threw three interceptions and fumbled once in trying to avoid him.

He still tracked down the ball carrier in key situations. On one third down, Bilal closed quickly on Center Grove quarterback Joey Siderewicz, who escaped the pocket and appeared headed for a first down after crossing the line of scrimmage. He couldn’t escape Bilal.

247Sports slates Bilal as the No. 3 inside linebacker in the 2015 class and No. 163 overall regardless of position. Rivals ranks him the No. 22 outside linebacker. Rivals Midwest analyst Josh Helmholdt says Bilal rates somewhere between Jaylon Smith, who was ranked as a five-star prospect and the nation’s No. 3 player in the 2013 class, and Brandon Lee, a three-star linebacker from Indianapolis who signed with Missouri in the last recruiting cycle.

“He holds up at the point of attack,” Helmholdt said of Bilal. “He definitely can play in space. He definitely has that length to be able to do that. He also has the frame and the bulk to be able to stand up at the point of attack and be able to handle teams running right at him, which is key for a linebacker."

Length, athleticism and speed stand as Bilal’s best assets. It’s a similar skillset, if not as elite, that Irish sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith possesses. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has pitched the same weakside (Will) linebacker role to Bilal.

Bilal found himself zoned in on Smith and the Michigan linebackers when his top two teams played last week. The Irish defense won the day, but it won’t be enough to sway Bilal.

"I guess it showed the better team,” Bilal said, “but when looking at the two schools I try to look at things such as the coaches, the way they coach and the relationships they may have with their players."

Bilal has plenty of time left to learn about Notre Dame and Michigan. February’s signing day is still months away.

“He gets the same question all the time: Have you made a decision? Honestly, the only thing he cares about when you talk to him is this season,” Kirschner said. “He goes, ‘I'm more concerned about us. The colleges will take care of itself.' If I had my way, he'd already had made the decision. But it's not mine to make. It's his and his family's. I'd just as soon get it over with and move on.”

If Kirschner couldn’t squeeze a decision out of him, don’t expect a college to either. Notre Dame and Michigan will have to wait. | 574-235-6214 | Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Ben Davis senior linebacker Asmar Bilal remains torn between Notre Dame and Michigan (SBT Photo/TYLER JAMES)