Notebook: Notre Dame rover Drue Tranquill on the move again — to linebacker

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — On a day when coach Brian Kelly put the finishing touches on his largest recruiting class at Notre Dame, a new linebacker emerged Wednesday who wasn’t on the official list of 27 signees.

That’s because he was already on the Notre Dame football roster.

Brian Kelly confirmed, in an exclusive interview with the Weekday SportsBeat radio show (WSBT, 96.1 FM) and the Tribune, that safety-turned-rover Drue Tranquill is being converted again — to an inside linebacker for the 2018 season.

He’ll play alongside senior-to-be Te’von Coney, ND’s leading tackler (116) in 2017. Tranquill was ND’s third-leading tackler (85) in his only season playing rover and was extremely productive across the board — fumbles recovered, sacks, tackles for loss, coverage — in a position switch last season that rejuvenated his career.

In December, Tranquill surprised even some of his teammates in announcing he would return for a fifth year at ND.

“Those guys who come back for that final year, I want to put them in a position where not only can they help Notre Dame, but they can help themselves as well,” Kelly said.

“Rovers aren’t going to be the first group that get drafted in the NFL, but linebackers that can stay on the field all three downs, they’re very appealing.”

The move, in turn, opens up the rover position, with sophomore-to-be Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, senior-to-be Asmar Bilal and incoming freshman Shayne Simon the leading candidates to emerge as the starter on a team that has 10 returning on the defensive side of the ball.

While the rover group is perceived to be more advanced than the backup linebackers at this juncture, Kelly said the decision to move Tranquill inside was driven solely by Tranquill’s abilities.

“We think he’s one of our best linebackers,” Kelly said. “His instincts, his ability to follow the ball, his ability to attack downhill, his ability to play in coverage. He’s a three-down linebacker. It enhances his (NFL) draft stock.”

Recourse for dismissed players?

Roughly three weeks after Kelly dismissed four players from the ND football program for various reasons, the four remain enrolled in school but won’t be part of Notre Dame’s spring practices, which are penciled in to start March 6.

Sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson was the only one of the four who was a starter. The others were sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, freshman running back C.J. Holmes and junior nose guard Brandon Tiassum.

Kelly said Wednesday that he won’t meet again with any of them until at or near the end of the spring semester, with the focus being their academic futures, not their football ones.

“I have not committed to them one way or another — that they’d have an opportunity or that they didn’t have an opportunity (to play football again for ND),” Kelly said. “We don’t close the door, but we tell them what they’re status is.

“Their status is that they are no longer with us. We’ll sit down with them at the end (of the semester), because they’re here academically and we’ll have one more conversation with them before they either decide to stay here or move on.”

Tiassum tweeted recently that his intentions were to get his ND degree in December, then take a grad transfer to another school for his final season of eligibility.

According to a source, only one of the four could possibly work his way back to the active roster, but that there were no pre-set stipulations in place that would set that process in motion. And given the fact ND is four over the NCAA scholarship limit of 85 at the moment, the numbers crunch alone makes a return highly unlikely.

Answering a cry for help

Stepherson’s arrest last week, his fifth since enrolling at Notre Dame and his fourth in the past two months, is just another exclamation point on the end of a sometimes-brilliant, often-turbulent two seasons in South Bend for the Jacksonville, Fla., product.

What isn’t so obvious is what obligation does the university and football program have to a player whose life appears to be in a tailspin? Three of the arrests are drug-related.

“It’s a great question, but it’s based upon whether you feel like you’ve failed the young man,” Kelly said. “Do you provide him the resources institutionally to handle his situation?

“We did things at Notre Dame, that I don’t think we’ve ever done before, to help this young man. And there comes a time when somebody has to make a choice as to whether he’s going to take advantage of all those resources.

“So there’s been times in my career where I can clearly say we failed a young man and we didn’t do enough. We weren’t proactive enough. In this instance, we provided him with all the resources — the institution did as well — for him to be successful, and he continued to make the choices that he did.”

Help at running back

The dismissals of McIntosh and Holmes left the Irish with two returning scholarship running backs — senior-to-be Dexter Williams and junior-to-be Tony Jones Jr., both of whom were slowed by injuries in 2017.

Two freshmen were added in the 2018 recruiting class — C’Bo Flemister, who signed Wednesday, and Jahmir Smith, who signed Dec. 20 and enrolled early, in January.

Running backs coach Autry Denson offered that walk-on Mick Assaf would get some opportunities this spring, but Kelly took it a step further, intimating that a player — or more than one — could move from another position to fortify depth at running back.

“I think it's a little early for me to comment publicly, but we have some ideas internally that will augment that position,” he said. “And I think as we get closer to spring, they'll kind of show themselves and we'll be able to talk about that.”

Bigger is better?

Assembling the largest recruiting class of the Kelly Era — 27 — was very much intentional. And it was every bit as much about the quality as it was the quantity.

The inspiration for doing so, Kelly said, was Notre Dame’s November fades. Since the 2012 team swept all four of its November matchups, the Irish are a combined 8-13 in that month since, with not a single winning record in any given season.

“That’s on me to figure out the things that we need to do in November,” Kelly said, “and part of is to strengthen that roster. These young players, we’re committed to playing, to help out our frontline players that are carrying a lot of the minutes for our football team.

“That means you better be ready to roll if you’re on scholarship at Notre Dame, because we need to count on you. There were too many players that were on this roster last year, on scholarship, that did not contribute in November that need to contribute.”

And Kelly isn’t ruling out adding an additional player via the grad transfer market in the weeks ahead. The Irish have taken four such players on scholarship, all since 2014.

“I don't think we ever close the door,” Kelly said. “We're always open for business. We've got to make good decisions that are best for our program, but you know, we're always going to keep our eyes open.”

Diamond dreams

Although running back Tony Jones Jr. floated the notion of playing a second sport — specifically baseball — at Notre Dame with the media, running backs coach Autry Denson never took him seriously.

“I wasn’t worried about Tony ever playing baseball,” Denson said Wednesday.

Freshman tight end Cole Kmet, though, expressed the same sentiments and followed through on them. And it appears he’ll have a prominent role with coach Mik Aoki’s Irish this spring.

The right-handed batter and left-handed pitcher is expected to be used as both a pitcher and a position player for ND, which opens the season at LSU, Feb. 16-18. The perennial national contending Tigers are led by former Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri.

Kmet led his Arlington Heights St. Viator team to the Illinois Class 3-A championship last spring. He batted .435, had an 8-3 record on the mound, and — at 6-foot-6, 265 pounds — stole 14 bases in 17 attempts.

“He’s a once in a lifetime player,” St. Viator coach Mike Manno said. “And I’m not talking about just being an athlete. He’s such a unique kid. He’s well beyond his years. Tremendous leadership qualities, has a great sense of selflessness with other people.

“It’s all about team first. With all the accolades he gets, it’s always been about the team. It’s never been about him.”

Drue Tranquill (23), here celebrating a big play against North Carolina State on Oct. 28, is moving from rover to linebacker this spring. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)