Another test for Notre Dame linebacker Asmar Bilal
SOUTH BEND — The four midterm exams Asmar Bilal had to study for and take this week finally caught up to the Notre Dame sophomore linebacker Wednesday night.
He logged two hours of sleep, per Irish head coach Brian Kelly, but didn’t seem to be fazed at all about the extra academic workload piled on top of a burgeoning role in the reconstituted ND defense.
“It’s tough, but it’s manageable,” an underwhelmed Bilal said.
The 6-foot-2, 230-pounder from Ben Davis High in Indianapolis takes the same collected, unruffled tack when it comes to the fact he, fellow sophomore Te’von Coney and, to some extent, junior Greer Martini collectively comprise life after All-American Jaylon Smith at the weakside linebacker position.
“He’s always been very unassuming, not much of an ego,” said Ben Davis High coach Mike Kirschner, who counts Bilal as one of the key figures in the school’s 2014 state championship run.
“My kids come from some rough homes, where we live, and our school is 80-some percent free and reduced lunch. We speak many different languages in the township (Wayne), and it’s an amazing place with a lot of poverty.
“Asmar rose above all that crap that went on. And I think you’ll see him rise at Notre Dame, too. Even when he wasn’t playing a few weeks ago, we talked to him about it. He wasn’t like, ‘I can’t believe they’re screwing me. Brian VanGorder doesn’t understand me.’ He was like, ‘When it’s my time, it’ll be my time.’
“Based on what I saw in last week’s game, maybe the time is close. He’s starting to make plays.”
Heading into Saturday night’s clash between Notre Dame (2-4) and Stanford (3-2) at Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV), Bilal had collected nine tackles over his past two games compared with four combined over the four games when VanGorder was presiding over the defense.
In fact, along with defensive end Jay Hayes, safety Nicco Fertitta and cornerbacks Troy Pride Jr., and Donte Vaughn, Bilal is one of the players whose opportunity and production both spiked when VanGorder was fired Sept. 25 after his 30th game as defensive coordinator with the Irish.
At the time, Notre Dame was on a trajectory to tie its worst national rankings in school history in both total defense (103rd) and scoring defense (101st). And that standing was garnered against the nation’s No. 20 offense (Texas), but also current Nos. 76 (Duke), 100 (Nevada) and 102 (Michigan State) as well.
Thanks to a strong second half against Syracuse on Oct. 1 and Hurricane Matthew a week later at N.C. State that suppressed offensive stats for both teams, the now Greg Hudson/Brian Kelly-engineered defense stands at No. 75 in total defense and No. 78 in scoring defense.
Surprisingly Stanford — at No. 122 in total offense, down 82 spots from the end of last season — represents the least-potent offense the Irish have faced or will face this season. And that’s with 2015 Heisman Trophy runner-up Christian McCaffrey as part of the Cardinal attack.
That may or may not be the case Saturday night, with Stanford coach David Shaw perhaps making a game-night decision on an undisclosed injury. Observers believe it to be a hip injury, which truncated his performance last Saturday night in a 42-16 loss to Washington State.
Kelly and the Irish expect the NCAA single-season record-holder in total offense to play Saturday night as do some media members who follow the team.
Kelly, meanwhile, expects Bilal to not only play, but keep improving. And he expects that from the weakside linebacker position as a whole, which was a problem spot early in the season.
“I think he’s learning the subtleties of the game,” Kelly said of Bilal. “I think the first thing that came with Asmar was a raw, athletic package. Extremely athletic. Fast. Te’von (had) a better sense of the subtleties of the game. And the combination of the two is a pretty dynamic. It’s a great 1-2, if you will.
“Greer Martini gives us great versatility, (helps on) third down, and just a guy that can do a lot of jobs for us. They’re real different players but all add a little bit to the mix to give us a pretty strong rotation there.”
Bilal redshirted last season as a freshman, but hardly fermented. He was selected by the coaching staff as the scout team defensive player of the year for his practice performances in helping get the ND No. 1 offense prep for games.
“It was a great experience. I loved it,” Bilal said of scout-team duty, which is almost opposite of the typical response. ”I think it got me prepared for where I am now.”
And where he is now is one of a handful of defensive players in their first season of college action, whose rate of maturation over the next six games tie in directly with the potential to improve as a team and subsequently the volume control for those calling for a change in head coaches.
“I know where we’re at right now,” Bilal said of the 2-4 start and the noise that’s come with it. “We all do.”
He has a harder time seeing what his potential looks like. When it was related to Bilal that some of his teammates referred to him as a “freak athlete,” he laughed.
“I think his ceiling is really pretty high,” said Kirschner, who noted that Bilal had two quiet seasons at Ben Davis before breaking through as a junior.
“At the high school level, what we require of kids isn’t nearly as difficult as the college level. So a lot of what he did in high school was based on athleticism.
“He’s big, strong and fast. And I think once he understands and comes to grips with everything he’s supposed to do and the mental part catches up, he’s going to be pretty special.”