Plenty of fowl play for Notre Dame's Alohi Gilman in his player development model

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND

This is a story about a boy and his chicken. Or chickens, plural.

Although it’s still not clear whether they’re actually his chickens or someone else’s. But the boy, who used to chase them in the streets of Laie, Hawaii — right down the street from where former Notre Dame All-America linebacker Manti Te’o and football sidekick Robby Toma also grew up — apparently did the chicken-chasing for entertainment purposes, not out of necessity.

“I didn’t have no video games. I didn’t have TV. I chased chickens,” Notre Dame junior safety Alohi Gilman proclaimed after a recent practice. “All my friends growing up. I guess you could say ‘island living.’ We didn’t have much when we were growing up.”

So now the boy is a man, and the Navy transfer credits, in part, the aforementioned chicken-chasing in developing him into a player that will likely start in 11th-ranked ND’s apparently significantly improved defensive backfield in the Sept. 1 season opener at Notre Dame Stadium against 14th-ranked Michigan.

Yet it probably got to the point during his give-and-take with the media that he might have actually come to regret offering that piece of info.

Were the chickens outside?

What did you do after you caught one?

Did it improve your quickness?

Did you ever see the movie “Rocky?” and did the chicken- chasing scene from that movie inspire you?

For the record: Yes. Let it go. Yes. Yes. No.

It’s not clear — and he wasn’t asked — if Gilman eats chicken, which is peripherally relevant for the Michigan matchup, because the quarterback who started the 2017 opener for the Wolverines — Wilton Speight, now at UCLA — recently told Bleacher Report that Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh warned him against eating chicken …

Because it was “a nervous bird.”

“He thinks some type of sickness injected its way into the human population when people began eating white meats instead of beef and pork,” Speight was quoted as saying. “And he believes it, 100 percent.”

For the record, with Speight having left the program, the quarterback Gilman and his teammates will be chasing Sept. 1 is likely to be Ole Miss transfer Shea Patterson. Unlike Gilman, Patterson didn’t have to sit out a season to satisfy NCAA transfer rules.

Gilman, though, could have been teammates with Patterson.

Michigan was one of his most ardent suitors once the former two-star recruit decided to leave the Naval Academy after his freshman season in which he was the team’s second-leading tackler. An NFL dream, coupled with the state department’s reversal of the ability to defer active duty to chase such a dream, prompted him to transfer.

Besides Michigan, USC, Arizona and Utah were among a dozen high-profile suitors, per Gilman’s father, Asai.

Once the NCAA rejected Gilman’s petition for immediate eligibility and an appeal, the now 5-foot-11, 202-pounder settled onto the Irish scout team to test and sharpen the ND No. 1 offense in 2017.

He was good enough at it that the coaching staff named him Scout Team Defensive Player of the Year after last season, but lousy enough at it that he routinely got thrown out of practice for going too hard and not being able to find a happy medium.

“I only know one speed,” Gilman said with a shrug.

Finally, though, he knows familiarity. Being with the Irish two seasons in a row marked the end of a cycle in which Gilman attended six different institutions in six years in five different states and played wide receiver exclusively for the first two years of that run.

Ascending to the top of the depth chart with him is a player Gilman likely would have bumped from the starting lineup had he gained immediate eligibility, senior Nick Coleman, a converted cornerback and the preseason camp surprise so far.

“He’s playing at a different level,” said ND head coach Brian Kelly, who counts the surge of the safety corps as a whole as the most pleasant development of camp to date.

Prodigy Houston Griffith, back to full speed after a minor hamstring injury, and improved 2017 starter Jalen Elliott, provide some quality depth for a position that didn’t even have quality starters last season.

“He’s gifted athletically, obviously,” Gilman offered of Griffith, a freshman who enrolled early, in January. “He’s a quick learner. I don’t look at him as a freshman anymore. He’s part of the older guys now. We treat him that way and we expect him to play at the highest level.”

Gilman holds himself to the same high standard, as does Kelly, which means beefing up on the finesse part of his game to go along with his unbridled physicality and being a better communicator on the field in the secondary.

“He’s tough. He’s physical. He can tackle, tackle in space, play the ball in the air,” Kelly said. “We know what that skill set is. It lends itself to good play.

“But he’s still got some work to do in mastering what we’re doing defensively.”

The torment of sitting out last season keeps goading him in the right direction.

“I think about it every day and every night,” he said. “It’s humbling for sure, when you’re not playing. You definitely have to sit back and recognize the opportunity that you’re given. Being able to play and step on the field and interact and go through the process with my guys is great.

“I’m humbled and I’m grateful every day for the opportunity. You can’t take anything for granted.”

Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman runs a drill during Saturday morning's practice inside Notre Dame Stadium.