Notre Dame LB Asmar Bilal thrives in season away from spotlight

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Asmar Bilal expected to play.

Of course he did. Who could blame him? Sure, it’s true that Bilal arrived at fall camp as a raw freshman, only months removed from signing with Notre Dame. It’s true that former starters Joe Schmidt, Jaylon Smith, James Onwualu, Jarrett Grace and Nyles Morgan all returned at linebacker. It’s true that, generously listed at 210 pounds, he was physically outmatched by many of his peers.

But following a senior season at Ben Davis High School in which he recorded 155 tackles, 104 solo stops, six tackles for loss and five sacks, the Indianapolis native expected to contribute, regardless of what he’d have to overcome.

As it turns out, he has contributed — just not in an actual game.

“Coming in, I thought I would be able to be up there,” said Bilal, who spent his freshman season on Notre Dame’s scout team. “But I just played with the cards dealt. It was a great learning experience, being on the scout team. I was able to help the guys out a lot. I just did whatever I could to better myself as an athlete and just contribute to the team.”

On Friday, those contributions were recognized, as Bilal won the award for Defensive Scout Team Player of the Year at Echoes 15. It was a hint at what could be a brighter — and less anonymous — future.

“He has some physicality to him,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “He has a good sense of where he is when he drops. It’s not like he’s looking for receivers. He senses and feels receivers. He’s going to be a really good football player.”

After an impressive freshman season behind the scenes at Notre Dame, the question doesn’t seem to be if the 6-foot-2, 215-pound linebacker will play, but where.

“A lot of it’s yet to be determined,” Kelly said. “I think he’s a guy who has the ability to play Will or Sam, because he’s got speed. He’s got traits that allow him to have some multiplicity in that sense.”

Maybe that’s why Bilal was perceived nationally as a four-star prospect, with more than 20 scholarship offers to his name. Maybe it’s why he was selected to participate in the US Army All-American Bowl with fellow Notre Dame freshman linebacker Josh Barajas following his senior season.

Maybe it’s why, following the possible departures of Schmidt, Smith and Grace in the middle of Notre Dame’s defense this offseason, Bilal could make an in-game impact sooner rather than later.

If he does, however, it’ll be thanks in part to his season away from the spotlight.

“They helped me out a lot,” Bilal said of the upperclassmen. “All the linebackers are great people – James (Onwualu), Jarrett Grace and Jaylon (Smith). They taught me a lot.

“I’ve had film sessions with them, hanging out with them personally. I’ve just learned a lot from them.”

Until he meets an actual opponent, Bilal’s greatest challenge is to surpass his own lofty expectations.

“Realizing my role during the season was a big challenge for me,” Bilal said. “When I came in I really didn’t expect to be on the scout team as much. It just kind of happened. That was a challenge for me, but I got through that. I just took on my role.

“Everything that comes with it — the mental aspect of it, the practice, the intensity, school — everything was a huge challenge. I think I did well taking it in so far.”

mvorel@sbtinfo.com

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Notre Dame's (27) Asmar Bilal and Joe Schmidt (38) take a break between drills during media day, Tuesday, August 18, 2015, in South Bend. SBT Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ