Noie: All new again for old Notre Dame LB Drue Tranquill

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CULVER — Nothing about the start of another preseason football camp ever feels routine for Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill.

There always seems to be a sense of newness that shadows the 6-foot-2, 235-pound Tranquill onto the FieldTurf surface of Oliver Field on the campus of the Culver Academies. It all makes the first practice seem so fresh, so different, so exciting.

Like his freshman year, when the then-defensive back stood off to the side and stewed because he wasn’t getting many — OK, any — reps with the first team defense. He couldn’t understand why. He thought he had all the answers. Turns out he didn’t have many. Really any.

Or having to face his fears after twice rehabilitating torn anterior cruciate ligaments in his knee. Or even last year, one that saw Notre Dame flirt ever so slightly with a possible spot in the College Football Playoff before finishing 10-3. The year saw the 22-year-old serve for the first time as a team captain while producing career highs in tackles (85) and tackles for loss (10.5) from his rover linebacker spot.

Even Tranquill’s final first practice of a college season felt as new as the first. On Friday, Tranquill stepped back on the field he hasn’t been on in basically a calendar year a totally different player. Maybe even person.

A college graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering. A fifth-year guy and one of the older guys on the squad that he seemingly has more in common with some of the staff members as he does teammates. A husband after his July wedding. Now a two-time team captain. And an INSIDE linebacker, his third position of his collegiate career.

New position, new season, new wife, but the same old Tranquill. Always ready. Always prepared to make a play. Always there.

“He doesn’t change much,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly. “Every day, he’s on top of it. You talk about accountability and responsibility; he takes it all on his shoulders.”

No matter how heavy the load, he keeps going. Tranquill has been here and there and done basically all of that. Now he has the chance to do it one more time from a position he’s never played. Ever. This time, do it better than he’s ever done it in an Irish uniform.

“I’ve seen a lot, been through a lot,” Tranquill said following Friday’s late-morning/early-afternoon practice that stretched a solid two and a half hours. “I bring so much experience to the table. That’s one of my strengths right now.”

One buzzword has bounced around both of Kelly’s meetings with the media the first two days of the 2018 season — maturity. Kelly talked Thursday back on campus about the maturity of this football team. About their focus on excellence. On Friday, after the first of too many practices to even count, Kelly again mentioned maturity within minutes of the final practice horn.

Much of that starts with Tranquill, who’s been around the proverbial college football block. Once. Twice. Three times. He’s been on Irish teams that have finished 4-8 and sat at home during bowl season. He’s been on teams that have twice won at least 10 games. He’s been to a New Year’s Day bowl game. He had a chance to leave and start the next phase of his football life last winter after December graduation, but chose to instead stay and basically start all over. New defensive coordinator in Clark Lea. New position in the weakside (buck) linebacker.

Yet for Tranquill, there was no decision.

“I love college football,” he said between sips from a green Gatorade bottle of ice water. “It’s been my dream since I was a kid. To compete for a national championship is everything for me.”

One more year

Tranquill couldn’t walk away from the chance to again play the game, and play it with some of the guys he’ll get a chance to play alongside this season. He’s one of nine returning starters on defense.

“I love these guys,” he said. “I love the opportunity to develop at a position that I’m going to play at the next level.”

That position is next to fellow inside ‘backer Te’von Coney. A year ago, the pair combined for 201 tackles, 23.5 tackles for loss and 4.5 quarterback sacks. On Thursday, Kelly classified the twosome terror as tackling machines. They find the football in a hurry, can sift through any oncoming or periphery traffic and go and make a play. On first down. Third down. Doesn’t matter. They’re making stops. A lot of stops. They did it last year, so why not do it again?

“That’s certainly the goal,” Tranquill said. “We’re in there to get the ball on the ground. As Coach Lea says, we’ve got to be the spear.”

It has a chance to be a pretty sharp spear. Razor sharp. Cut an opponent deep sharp.

Tranquill will work this season closer to the football on every snap than he’s ever been. Closer than he was his first couple seasons as a defensive back. Closer than he was last season when he ran wild at rover. In Tranquill’s book, close indeed does count.

“That’s my attitude; that’s my instinct as a player,” he said. “When I’m able to get closer to the ball and make plays, it feels good.

“It’s where I should be. It’s where I feel most comfortable. I’m excited.”

Tranquill spent a chunk of Friday’s practice on the move. Running to the middle of the field for the pre-practice huddle. Running back to the side practice field to work on technique. Back over to Oliver Field for seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 periods. By the time the first day went final, he was ready to drag himself to the building that serves as the Irish locker room, dunk himself in a cold tub and hydrate.

It was a good first day, but a long one.

“I was tired as hell,” Tranquill said. “But I felt good.”

His effort late on a warm and relentlessly sunny day was apparent. He worked nearly every rep at or near game speed. Two hours in, Tranquill shadowed Alize Mack up the seam on a pass play. Tranquill stayed with the athletic tight end, then looked back as quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s pass was about to arrive. Tranquill made a diving interception, then fired the ball to a manager off to the side and went back to work.

On the next snap, he would have to drop back into pass coverage. Or read his run keys. Cover a back. Find the ball. Tranquill stressed that his hand-eye coordination has to be on point. His feet have to move quicker. He’s got to play with speed and smarts and leverage.

“It adds a whole ‘nother nuance to the game, but it’s fun,” Tranquill said. “I wouldn’t say I’m fully comfortable. Get complacent and get comfortable, that’s when you’ll get passed up.

“There’s always something to learn.”

Something new, even for the old guy.

Two-time team captain Drue Tranquill has found a third position to call home in his fifth and final season of college football.