Drue Tranquill transcends to center stage in Notre Dame-Stanford showdown

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — He was a prospect without a clear position and, until Brian Kelly stepped in, one without Notre Dame in his future.

The consensus of the Irish football coaching staff was to pass on Drue Tranquill, whose strong baseball trajectory had cratered because of a back condition and who was sitting verbally committed in Purdue’s 2014 football recruiting class as an unheralded three-star safety.

Kelly pounded the table, as did then-recruiting coordinator Mike Elston. Minority ruled, and to this day Kelly considers Tranquill the prospect that the ninth-year ND head coach had to fight for, who most exceeded even his own high expectations.

“I thought he would impact our program from a toughness standpoint,” Kelly said of the grad senior inside linebacker from Fort Wayne, Ind. “Would he end up at buck linebacker? No, I don’t think I envisioned that.

“But I knew that his demeanor, the way he handled himself, he was going to be a positive impact on our football program.”

Four and a half years, two position changes, two ACL knee surgeries and a 20-pound weight gain later, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Tranquill is a central figure in one of the most momentous games of the Kelly Era of Notre Dame football — certainly the most momentous staged in Notre Dame Stadium.

Saturday night’s clash between No. 7 Stanford (4-0) and the eighth-ranked Irish (4-0) is the ninth time Kelly has coached against a top 10 team while at

ND, but the first one to unfold on his turf. It’s also the first meeting of top 10 teams at Notre Dame Stadium since the “Bush Push” game with USC in 2005.

“Stanford’s kind of unique in that although they’re from the Pac-12, they bring this tough-nosed, run-the-ball-down-your-throat, smash-you-in-the-mouth mentality,” Tranquill said, “And that’s the way we like to play.”

Notre Dame will do so, though, without a key offensive piece.

Sophomore running back Jafar Armstrong, ND’s second-leading rusher (245 yards, 47 carries, 5 TDs) is out with a knee infection. Irish Illustrated was the first to report the development. The Irish do add a running back onto the active roster, though, as senior Dexter Williams’ four-game suspension has elapsed.

There’s a kind of chess-match, cerebral element paired with the test of wills and brute force in this ND-Stanford matchup that heightens Tranquill’s role.

A week after facing the nation’s No. 2 FBS team nationally in offensive plays run per game — tempo-happy Wake Forest at 93.3 — the Irish get the other extreme in pace, in Stanford.

The Cardinal, averaging 58 plays per game, is second from the bottom at 129th and ahead of only Florida (57.5). The national average is 71.3.

In last weekend’s 38-31 overtime win at Oregon, the Cardinal — in rallying from 17 points down — only logged 50 offensive plays.

“When you play high-tempo offense, it’s schematically pretty simple,” Tranquill said. “You have a few formations. They’re just trying to wear you out with fatigue.

“With Stanford, obviously, it’s a little more complex in the schematics of things. You have to be able to be in the right position.

“When you get a guy like (QB K.J.) Costello and those guys out at Stanford, who bring a sort of higher football intelligence to the game, I think you can put that in their hands a little bit more.”

So it’s not just the size of the Stanford receivers and tight ends — Notre Dame’s starting outside receivers are actually both taller than the Cardinal’s. It’s the way Costello manipulates formations pre-snap at the line of scrimmage with 6-3, 225-pound JJ Arcega Whiteside, 6-2, 204-pound Trenton Irwin and the deep Stanford tight end corps that puts pressure on opposing defenses.

“Everybody has got to be ready,” Tranquill said. “They move their guys around, and they’re going to create matchups all over the field.”

Or mismatches.

Tranquill’s days as a strong safety and rover in ND’s previous defenses have helped make him a force on an Irish pass-efficiency defense this season that’s ranked 18th nationally. If that held up over the entire season, that’d be the highest ranking in that category for ND since the vaunted 2012 defense ended 16th.

Perhaps the surprise part of Tranquill’s game has been in the run game, having to now take on 300-pound guards and sometimes in close quarters. Tranquill comes into the Stanford matchup as ND’s leading tackler with 33 (27 of them solo), including three tackles for loss with a sack.

Tranquill said the biggest challenge, in moving from rover on the outside to buck linebacker inside this season, isn’t the physicality of the game but being able to see things peripherally to diagnose plays.

“Playing rover, though, made it easier than just moving from safety to this position,” he said.

Tranquill is the only player on the Notre Dame roster who has played in an ND-Stanford fracas in which the Irish came out victorious — 17-14 in 2014. As a freshman backup safety, Tranquill made two tackles and blocked a punt in that game.

Everett Golson provided the offensive dramatics, a 23-yard pass to tight end Ben Koyack on fourth-and-11 with 61 seconds left.

Tranquill missed the 2015 matchup, a 38-36 loss at Stanford in which the Cardinal rallied with a 30-second scoring drive and 45-yard field goal against a struggling ND defense in the regular-season finale.

He had suffered a torn ACL in game three of that season, celebrating of all things, in a win over Georgia Tech.

He watched that Stanford game from his parents’ home in Fort Wayne. The 27-yard pass that set up the game-winning field goal, Tranquill said, is still in the Stanford playbook and something conceptually the Cardinal run often.

“This game is a chance for our defense to get better,” Tranquill said. “We’re good, but we have a chance to be great. Our biggest thing is we’ve got to finish ballgames.

“We’ve had strong starts (six first-quarter points all season), but we got sloppy. I think just tightening things up and being able to play a full football game — that’s got to be our theme, moving forward.”

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) and Alohi Gilman (11) bring down Michigan QB Shea Patterson (10) during ND’s season-opening win over Michigan, Sept. 1 at Notre Dame Stadium.

Kickoff:  7:30 EDT

Notre Dame Stadium

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