Just what is Notre Dame getting in safety transfer Alohi Gilman — and when?
The most intriguing swath of summer uncertainty regarding the Notre Dame football team wraps itself around a player who next Monday will be starting classes at his sixth institution in six years.
And in a fifth different state.
The voices from Navy safety transfer Alohi Gilman’s past not only unfurl a logical pattern to all the movement but paint a promising picture of what his future might look like.
His immediate future.
And at arguably Notre Dame’s biggest position of need, present and future.
The immediacy portion of Gilman’s potential impact is escrowing in the NCAA’s hands now. Irish head coach Brian Kelly confirmed Monday at the Kelly Cares Invitational charity golf tournament in Bridgman, Mich., that the school is pursuing a waiver for immediate eligibility on Gilman’s behalf.
Otherwise, Gilman’s ND debut would be set for Sept. 1, 2018, against one of the schools he turned down in his re-recruitment, coach Jim Harbaugh’s Michigan Wolverines.
If successful in moving up Gilman’s final three years of eligibility by 12 months, Kelly’s assertion that Navy’s second-leading tackler last season could impact the ND two-deeps, and perhaps battle for a starting berth in August, was backed by those familiar with him before he was such a hot commodity on the transfer market this spring.
Gilman’s father, Asai, confirmed USC, Arizona and Utah were among the roughly dozen high-profile schools that joined Michigan in expressing an interest as a landing spot for the 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore-to-be from Laie, Hawaii.
That’s quite a different list than Navy, Air Force, Hawaii, Nevada, UNLV, Utah State, Utah and Weber State he culled from his first recruitment, with Utah going back for seconds.
“He’s evolved, he’s improved. The kid is a frickin’ perfectionist,” said Sola Soliai, Gilman’s defensive coordinator during his senior season at Kahuku High on Oahu’s North Shore.
“He’s a grinder. Here’s the rarest kind of kid that you could find. If there’s something he needs to work on, he will not move on until he gets it done. And on top of all that he’s humble and respectful. There’s no question he was overlooked when he played for us.”
Which isn’t entirely unusual for the talent base at large in Hawaii.
Since Rivals began awarding star status to prospects in 2002 recruiting cycle, the recruiting service has dubbed only two players five-stars and never has it awarded more than two players higher-than three-star status in a single cycle.
In one of the years that it didn’t brand any Hawaiian players worthy of more than three stars, eventual Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota was among those underrated and underrecruited.
Gilman, a two-star prospect per Rivals, may have added a layer to his relative underrecruitment by being a moving target.
He attended private school Kamehameha in Honolulu in grades 7-10, then pinballed to Orem (Utah) High School while his family took a field trip of sorts for a year.
Gilman returned to Oahu for his senior season, and he opted to play for the neighborhood public school, Kahuku with his childhood friends. He then attended the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., the next year before signing to play for fellow Laie product, coach Ken Niumatalolo at Navy beginning in the fall of 2016.
His first year playing defensive back at any level came during the season in Utah, where he pulled double duty. Up until then Gilman was strictly a wide receiver. Soliai loved Gilman as a safety but played him at cornerback instead, as a way to shut down the passing game on half the field.
“And he did that in every game,” Soliai asserted.
Gilman was just 16 years old when he started his senior season at Kahuku.
“The best way I can describe Alohi Gilman’s potential is that I’m glad we don’t have to play against him anymore,” said Punahou head coach Kale Ane, who had to game-plan against Gilman and Kahuku in the 2014 Hawaii state playoffs and has followed his career closely ever since.
“I’m glad he’s moved on. When we played him, he was always around the ball, very tough. And his film showed that was the case against everybody else. I think he’s got the talent and mind-set to play well at Notre Dame. Play very well.”
Ane ought to know. Two of his former players, linebacker Manti Te’o — one of the aforementioned Hawaii five-stars — and wide receiver Robby Toma, suited up for the Irish in the final year of the Charlie Weis Era and the early years of the Kelly regime.
Gilman himself knows well both of the former Punahou stars. He also knows ND and Kahuku defensive line product Kona Schwenke, and Notre Dame incoming freshman defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, from Kapolei High.
In fact, Tagovailoa-Amosa’s older brother, Adam, was Gilman’s teammate at Navy. And when Myron took an official recruiting visit to Navy the same week that he looked over Notre Dame in late January, Gilman was his Navy host.
“It’s fun to see how these friendships continue to grow,” Asai Gilman said, “and how some of those people of influence have come full circle.”
That includes Notre Dame first-year special teams coach Brian Polian, instrumental under Weis in landing Te’o and Toma and who has the Irish back in business in Hawaii, now that he’s joined forces with Kelly.
“I don’t know if that the talent in Hawaii is a secret as much as I think it’s a long way to go,” Ane said, “especially for schools not on the West Coast. I think there’s concern about kids being homesick and could they handle being away from their homes and their families, because the cultures are so different.
“Even some of the West Coast schools, they were programs who had coaches on their staffs who had ties to the islands. They either played at Hawaii or had relatives here or were Polynesian. There was always some kind of connecting point.
“If those things didn’t align, those schools didn’t come out and recruit Hawaii, and they were missing out on a lot of good kids.
“But Manti and Robby going to Notre Dame really opened up things. We’ve got Vanderbilt coming in now, and some Big Ten schools. And of course Brian Polian is back, and I think Notre Dame is really benefitting from that.”
And Ane says he has another special linebacker coming in the rising junior class. A year behind him at Punahou is Gilman’s younger brother, Alaka’i, also a defensive back.
“He’s got the same kind of work ethic as Alohi,” Ane said. “He’s very quiet and respectful and doesn’t make excuses. Both of those kids handle adversity well.
“I think that starts with the family and is reinforced by the mentors they take on. Alohi is one of those kids who listens to his elders and absorbs a lot. Has great goals, great dreams.”
His dream of playing professional football is a big reason for his transfer out of Navy and also the centerpiece of his waiver request for immediate eligibility.
The Department of Defense in 2016 opened the door for graduates of the military academies to apply to defer their active service and be able to play professional sports upon graduation. Last month the department reversed field and closed the loophole.
“We’re going to enter into an area that’s never been challenged before,” Kelly said of the waiver request. “We really don’t know how that’s going to look, but he certainly enrolled under different circumstances than there are today.”
Kelly expects a swift turnaround on the decision.
“Whenever his career restarts, people are going to take notice,” Soliai said. “I told him after his freshman year at Navy, ‘You haven’t even walked through the door.’
“And you know what, I don’t think he’s going to walk through the door. I think he’s going to kick down the door. And when he does, a lot of schools are going to go, ‘Dang, I should have gone after that kid.’ ”