Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman making presence felt after long wait

Tyler James | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

Alohi Gilman waited 617 days to play a football game.

A transfer from Navy to Notre Dame meant Gilman had to sit out the 2017 season. The junior safety finally made his Irish debut in last week’s season opener against Michigan.

Just getting on the field would have been worth celebrating. But in putting together seven tackles, two pass breakups and one tackle for a loss in a 24-17 victory, Gilman made his presence known immediately.

“I can’t even put it into words,” Gilman said. “It’s just a feeling that I’m really grateful for. I’m humbled by this experience. I’ve worked so hard for this moment. To be back here and finally be free, it’s been great.”

Gilman’s moment of football freedom came in front of plenty of family members and friends from Hawaii. Gilman’s parents, four of his siblings and his girlfriend made the trip. Former Notre Dame football players and childhood idols Manti Te’o and Robby Toma were in town for the game too.

They posed on the field for pictures after the game. Te’o posted one of the photos on Facebook earlier this week.

“If this is not proof that those from our community can achieve great things then I don’t know what is,” Te’o wrote.

Gilman, Toma and Te’o all grew up in Laie, Hawaii.

“Those are my guys,” Gilman said. “I’ve grown up with them since I was a kid. Robby and Manti are good friends of mine. They’re always supportive of me, always texting, calling me, letting me know if I need anything.

“Just seeing them out there and their support for me, my boys back at home and my family back at home, it feels good.”

Saturday also was an emotional day for Gilman’s family, which made its first trip to Notre Dame for a game to see Alohi’s return in person.

“We understood what he went through in terms of stepping out and sitting out for a year,” said Gilman’s father, Asai. “He’s such a passionate young man with what he wants to do, which is playing and competing. It was nice to see. It was like one of those full circles of completing what he wants to do. Getting to see him play on the field like that in that sort of ambiance was one of those bucket list experiences for us.”

On the field, Alohi fulfilled, and maybe even exceeded, expectations in his Irish introduction. It wasn’t a secret that Alohi, who finished second on the team with 76 tackles as a freshman at Navy, might be Notre Dame’s best safety. That may have been the case last season while he was forced to sit out because of NCAA transfer rules.

But blanketing Michigan’s 6-foot-8, 262-pound Zach Gentry and knocking away a potential touchdown pass in the end zone on third-and-goal? That’s next-level stuff.

“I’m confident in my man-to-man ability if you’re lining up against me,” Alohi said.

He brought something different to Notre Dame’s safety group.

“He plays with an edge, too, and an attitude and a confidence,” head coach Brian Kelly said after the game. “He’s a guy that has a good sense of the football, makes plays and creates a confidence in that unit in the back end.

“He’s still learning back there, too. He hasn’t arrived yet, but he brings a different energy to that group and a confidence that we had been lacking.”

Asai knows about that edge. As his father and a coach, he taught his son a lot. But he’s not sure if he can take credit for all of it. The competitiveness extends well beyond him in his family.

“He does play with an edge,” Asai said. “That’s innate based on where he was raised and how he was raised.”

When Alohi returned to Hawaii in the offseason, he spent time teaching his younger brother, Alaka’i, the technique required for defensive backs. Asai, who trains local defensive backs himself, knew big things were coming for Alohi.

“I knew that he kind of turned the corner about being a master at his craft,” Asai Gilman said. “That’s why I wasn’t surprised at what he was doing (Saturday). I just smiled. This is work paying off.”

Saturday night was a statement for Alohi Gilman. He’s back.

It was also a statement for Notre Dame’s defense. At every level, the Irish now have playmakers. With Gilman roaming around the secondary, there are fewer weaknesses to expose.

He’s waited too long to accept failure.

“Patience was tested at times,” Alohi said, “but the reward is great.”

Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman (11) breaks up a pass to Michigan tight end Zach Gentry (83) in the Irish 24-17 victory last week.