Notre Dame S Drue Tranquill retooled for Navy and beyond
SOUTH BEND — There was nothing in Drue Tranquill’s past that suggested his crash course in triple-option football two seasons ago would result in anything other than, well, a crash.
The Notre Dave safety had never faced such an offense in high school, and he was still making the transition from prep outside linebacker to college safety when he was plopped into the starting lineup for the first time, against Navy.
Tranquill responded with five tackles in a 49-39 Irish triumph in Landover, Md., and looked even better in his only other exposure to the unorthodox offense, last season against Georgia Tech.
“I think you’re just playing fast and free,” said Tranquill, who along with the rest of the Irish (3-5) face Navy (5-2) Saturday at EverBank Field in Jacksonville, Fla.
“It just lets guys like me, guys at the safety position, be ball hawks. And that’s what I’ve done playing football my whole life. That’s what I love to do, just run and find the football.”
The even better news for head coach Brian Kelly and interim defensive coordinator Greg Hudson is that the 6-foot-2, 225-pound junior from Fort Wayne, Ind., appears to have found himself beyond the niche role he’ll fill the next couple of weeks against Navy, then Army in San Antonio, Texas.
The Irish finish out the regular season with a home matchup against Virginia Tech on Nov. 19 and a road test the following Saturday at USC, the kind of offenses which flustered Tranquill to the point of being benched in the opener against Texas and struggling in subsequent weeks up until defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder was purged on Sept 25.
Perhaps no Irish player has benefitted more from the philosophical shift that accompanied the coaching change.
Tranquill has ascended to be the second-leading tackler on the team, with 21 of his tackles (38 percent) occurring in the four games under VanGorder and 35 (62 percent) in the four games since his departure.
Along with that have been fewer missed tackles and fewer instances in which Tranquill has been asked to play to the weaker part of his game, which is being isolated in man coverage against the opponents’ top receivers.
“I think we’ve done a good job of adjusting and putting guys in position to where they’re more comfortable,” Tranquill said of the philosophical and scheme tweaks. “I think more than anything we’ve kind of eliminated so many different checks, which keep guys from moving right before the ball’s snapped.
“That has put guys in a position to get their cleats in the grass and get their keys and get a picture of the play. And I think that helps a lot of guys.”
What will help specifically against Navy, though, is excessive film study.
“It’s like learning a whole new defense,” Tranquill said of the Navy-Army double dip into option football. “(Film helps with) just seeing their tendencies, seeing what guys do. It’s nothing you can simulate, but it’s good for guys to really get a visual of how guys are moving and how they’re trying to attack us.”
Tranquill missed last season’s 41-24 home victory over the Mids. He suffered a torn ACL in the Georgia Tech game three weeks earlier, jumping to celebrate a pass breakup in the end zone. In less than a half against Tech, Tranquill had two tackles for loss among his four tackles in a 30-22 Irish victory.
Notre Dame held both triple-option teams well below their season averages for total yards (337 and 340, respectively).
But Navy especially is about evolving and counter moves and changing formations, motions and tendencies so they play different, look different from one season to the next.
“They have answers for everything. They've seen everything,” Kelly said. “It's not like you're going to come up with a defensive structure that they haven't seen before.
“So you've got to show them a few looks. I mean, you've got to move around a little bit. You've got to be fundamentally sound. And you have to have a base plan. ‘This is who we are. This is how we're going to defend you.’ And then you've got to have a couple of wrinkles off of that.”
For Tranquill, that still means paying attention to Navy’s passing game, seventh nationally in efficiency and coming off a 299-yard passing performance by Mids quarterback Will Worth in a 52-45 loss to South Florida.
Worth finished with a school-record 428 yards in total offense and accounted for five TDs, four on the ground in that game.
“Tough kid. Really tough kid,” Tranquill said of Worth.
So too is Tranquill. His ACL tear in game three last season was the second of his college career and gave him a matching set, one in each knee. The first ACL tear truncated his freshman season.
“Obviously, it takes a toll on you mentally, going through eight months of rehab both times,” he said. “It’s never been something with me where I’ve gone out there and feared getting injured again.
“I don’t know that that’s been too much of a mental block, but physically there are pains and soreness that you have to get over, especially in the first year.
“And so obviously fall camp this year and just the grind and the intensity my knee was sore, I had to work through that. And now I’m kind of coming out of that and feeling a lot more fresh and a lot better.”