A look at Notre Dame's rover position and the Drue Tranquill dilemma

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Drue Tranquill reluctantly let go of a laugh, as if he was trying his best to hold on to it but the joke was just too good.

“Oh, yeah,” Notre Dame’s senior safety responded, when asked if he can feel a physical difference in his play this spring. “I can definitely feel it. I feel a lot stronger, a lot faster, a lot quicker.”

Tranquill’s transformation was not a matter of weight, but purpose. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior gained five pounds in Matt Balis’ grueling winter conditioning program, though adding muscle also meant reducing his body fat to the lowest it’s ever been. Though it may seem contradictory, Tranquill is both A.) heavier and B.) faster.

But what’s the best way to utilize his new frame, and the attributes that come with it?

As a strong safety last season, Tranquill piled up 79 tackles, two tackles for loss and an interception, proving a consistent contributor after missing parts of the previous two seasons with a pair of torn ACLs. Although he has always been a sure tackler, the Fort Wayne product was exposed at times in man-to-man pass coverage.

Therein lies the dilemma: Does Tranquill fit best as a strong safety, or the hybrid Rover safety-linebacker that defensive coordinator Mike Elko plans to implement in his 4-2-5 scheme?

Arguments can be made for both positions. Keep Tranquill at strong safety, and you get a proven run-stopper on the back end of your defense, as well as an unquestioned leader capable of anchoring a frightfully young secondary. But on the other hand, you also have a target opposing offenses may try to exploit in the vertical passing game.

Move Tranquill to rover, and it seems you might more efficiently match his skill set. The senior captain, who would compete with junior Asmar Bilal at the position, could creep into the box and play the run more often, while also being allowed to rush the passer off the edge. He’d be allowed to cover down field less and chase the quarterback more.

But at what cost? Remove Tranquill from the back line, and Notre Dame’s next eligible starters at the traditional safety positions are sophomore Devin Studstill (who moved from free to strong safety this offseason) and free safeties Nick Coleman (who moved from corner to safety this spring) and sophomore Jalen Elliott (who moved from strong safety to free after playing sparingly last season).

A shift from strong safety to rover may be best for Tranquill, but not his team.

“I think we all know what his strengths are, right? He’s a solid tackler,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “I don’t think there’s any safety in college football that wants to get matched up 1-on-1 with a skilled slot receiver. This would minimize that, when you’re playing closer to the ball as a rover.

“He’s pretty quick off the edge, so I think we’ll put him in a pretty good position in maximizing his skill set. Plus he’s a smart player, too.”

Of course, calling Tranquill a smart football player is like calling Cal Ripken Jr. a durable baseball player. It’s inarguably true, but also a glaring understatement. A mechanical engineering major, Tranquill was named a first-team Academic All-American last season.

Teach him two positions, and he’ll learn both. It’s a matter of deciding where he fits.

“I’m still moving around everywhere,” said Tranquill, who has trained at both positions this spring. “I don’t think it’s any different than freshman year when I was playing joker (situational linebacker) and safety at the same time.

“One of my strengths is having a high football intelligence and having the ability to learn different positions. That has been advantageous for our program, so I’ll continue to do that and learn multiple positions.”

In fact, absorbing two positions is simply the tip of his schematic iceberg. Tranquill, who was named one of six team captains this winter, seeks to understand not just where the pieces move in Elko’s defense, but why.

Digesting the big picture, Tranquill says, will help him not just thrive, but lead.

“Being able to communicate with other guys, help our younger guys on the field, direct them, help them get a pre-snap thought,” Tranquill said, when asked for his top priorities this spring.

“I think that’s really what I’m focusing on, having a new defense, learning the entirety of it, learning conceptually what coach Elko is trying to do. That way we can best move forward as a defense.”

But too much knowledge, in Tranquill’s case, could weigh him down. While his teammates worry about learning the defense, Tranquill’s challenge is to digest Elko’s scheme, trust his instincts and simply play.

“The only thing that sometimes holds Drue back is that he’s a cerebral football player,” said Jeff Burris, a former Notre Dame All-America safety who served as a defensive analyst last season. “I’ve told him, ‘Football can’t be cerebral all the time. It has to be instinctive.’

“When he learns to really cut it loose, you guys are going to really appreciate what he possesses.”

That marriage between intellect and instincts is still something Tranquill is working to forge. Take last Saturday, for example. At the tail end of Notre Dame’s practice, the Irish offense flared running back Tony Jones Jr. out of the backfield while a blocker moved to chip the pursuing Tranquill. Later, Tranquill admitted that he had diagnosed the entire play. He knew where Jones was going and where the block was coming from.

He saw the future, but he couldn’t stop it. Tranquill hesitated, and Jones scored.

“I’ll tell you what I tell him all the time,” Burris said. “I tell him verbatim, ‘You’re the best strong safety in this country. You just need to start playing like that consistently.’ ”

But to be the best strong safety in the country … Tranquill would have to play strong safety. That’s no guarantee, and Elko’s dilemma is no laughing matter.

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) celebrates during the Miami at Notre Dame NCAA college football game Saturday Oct. 29, 2016, inside Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA