Will life after Jaylon Smith at Notre Dame begin with Asmar Bilal?
SOUTH BEND — Life after Jaylon Smith at Notre Dame is now a blur, and sometimes in a good sense.
It starts with speedy Asmar Bilal, a 6-foot-2, 230-pound package of percolating potential, whose spring at Smith’s old position — weakside linebacker — started as an experiment and will end in Saturday’s Blue-Gold Game as an investment worth moving forward with.
Of the viable possibilities to replace the unanimous All-America linebacker — convalescing duo Te’von Coney and Greer Martini among them — Bilal is the one with the skill set most closely resembling Smith’s. He’s also the most unfinished of the three.
“Is he Jaylon Smith? No,” Irish linebackers coach Mike Elston said of Bilal on Wednesday after practice No. 13 of 15 this spring. “But he’s got great potential. Jaylon had to start somewhere, and that’s where Asmar is. He’s at the starting point of what we see as a very promising career.”
Their evolution from outside linebacker to inside linebacker syncs up. As a freshman in 2015, though, Bilal redshirted while working outside, while Smith in 2013 was on the field as a starter.
Smith was initially tried inside out of need, and evolved into a better player because of it. Bilal got max reps inside this spring at the new position, because Coney and Martini are recovering from surgeries, and he took advantage of it.
Martini, a junior, is slated to back up senior James Onwualu at the outside (strongside) linebacker when he returns to full contact, but he’s versatile enough to play any of the three linebacker positions. He’s also one of Notre Dame’s best players at any position at defending triple-option offenses, and the Irish will see two this season on consecutive Saturdays (Nov. 5 vs. Navy, Nov. 12 vs. Army).
Coney, meanwhile, was No. 2 at the weakside behind Smith last season as a freshman, but he has a different, thicker body type than Bilal or Smith.
“Te’von is maybe not as athletic as Asmar, but he’s very instinctive, very smart,” Elston said. “So he can get there at the same time, because he can diagnose it a little bit quicker.”
That’s Bilal’s growth edge, speeding up his game with quicker diagnosing of plays.
Elston didn’t feel he needed to tamp down expectations for Bilal, both from the outside looking in and with Bilal himself, the way head coach Brian Kelly slow-played Jarrett Grace to the media when he initially had to replace All-America linebacker Manti Te’o.
The process of building a life after Jaylon Smith at ND overall was pragmatic right from the start.
“When you say Jaylon, the first thing that comes into my mind is the production,” Elston said. “Someone’s got to replace the production. Jaylon wasn’t a verbal leader per se. Joe (Schmidt) was that guy.
“Jaylon was a production man. He made everyone else around him better, because he was going to make up for you. You got breached as a defensive tackle, he was going to the ball and make the tackle. It didn’t matter. So Jaylon made up for a lot of things.”
Smith’s team-leading 114 tackles in 2015 were 36 more than the next-closest Irish player, Schmidt. He tied for team high in pass break-ups, with five. He recovered as many fumbles (2) as the rest of the defense combined.
And if he hadn’t torn ACL and LCL ligaments in his left knee Jan. 1, with some nerve damage along with it, Smith could very well have been the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NFL Draft, April 28-30. His medical rechecks, Thursday and Friday in Indianapolis, could clarify whether he ends up in the first round after all.
Bilal’s own NFL dreams are even more undefined than what his spot on the depth chart will look like in the fall, but he’s spent enough time around Smith that the prospect of potentially stepping into his old role hasn’t become mentally cumbersome.
“He got to observe a guy who was so committed to his craft and what he did,” ND defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. “So he knows what it takes, coming from Jaylon.
“I don’t think anyone is unrealistic, thinking that the traits of a guy who played in that position for two years and really, really accelerated it, is going to match up to (where we are) right now. But (Bilal) knows what it looks like.”
The position won’t be restructured to take into account the absence of Smith’s freaky physical qualities, but Bilal may benefit from the two players who flank him. Surging Onwualu continues to evolve into an elite pass-coverage linebacker, while junior Nyles Morgan now has the communication piece mastered to complement his sideline-to-sideline range.
If the Notre Dame defense is going to improve on its No. 45 national standing in total defense — after losing significant star power, it’s going to take depth. It’s going to take answers in the pass rush and in the secondary.
And it’s going to take ascenders — such as Bilal and cornerback Shaun Crawford and defensive end Jay Hayes — to keep evolving over the summer and into fall camp.
“Asmar has all those traits you’re looking for to run and hit,” Elston said. “He’s strong, he’s productive. It may look different — No. 27 out there rather than 9 — but I think Asmar is doing some really good things this spring that make us very excited.”
When: Saturday at 12:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
TV: NBC Sports Network
Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM)