Laid-back linebacker Asmar Bilal excelling with more opportunities in Notre Dame's defense

Tyler James
tjames1@sbtinfo.com

Don’t expect to get a big reaction out of Asmar Bilal.

The senior Notre Dame linebacker is as laid-back as they come.

Usually.

Just don’t threaten one of his teammates.

“I only saw him bow up one time in the three years I coached him at the high school,” said Mike Kirschner, who served as Bilal’s head coach at Ben Davis in Indianapolis. “That was after a game. It was a very heated game, and it really had nothing to do with him.

“A player for another team was getting in one of our kid’s faces. I’ve never seen Asmar react. He reacted like, ‘You ain’t doing it, dude. You can go anywhere you want, but you ain’t touching this kid.’ It was really neat. He was kind of like a big brother.”

And thus ended the confrontation. Nobody wanted to mess with a four-star recruit with offers from the likes of Notre Dame, Michigan, Oregon, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech.

Bilal didn’t say a lot, but when he did, people paid attention.

“He was a captain of the football team that never said a word,” said Kirschner, now the head coach at Mt. Vernon in Fortville, Ind. “He was one of those captains that, ‘I’m going to be the captain because I’m going to do it the way it’s supposed to be done. This is the way coach Kirschner wants us to play. This is how we’re going to play, and this is what we’re going to do.’

“Nobody crossed that line with him. He had that unbelievable respect in the locker room of everybody around him.”

Respect hasn’t been hard for Bilal to find at Notre Dame either. He doesn’t say enough to offend anyone, and he has a reputation as a hard worker. But that rarely turned into consistent playing time.

Finally in his senior season, Bilal has earned a starting role at rover. He’s gaining more acclaim by the week. After Bilal recorded six tackles, one tackle for a loss and one pass breakup against Stanford last week, even head coach Brian Kelly admitted to underestimating the 6-foot-2, 225-pound linebacker.

“We haven’t had him in a lot of man (coverage) situations, quite frankly,” Kelly sad. “He’s been a re-router and a hook-to-flat player primarily playing zone. So we’ve taken him out of the game and gone nickel most of the time.”

That changed against Stanford. Bilal was asked to help shut down the dangerous tight ends in the Cardinal offense. Thanks to Bilal and others, Stanford’s tight ends caught only two passes for 35 yards in the 38-17 Notre Dame victory. In the third quarter, Bilal blanketed the 6-foot-5, 252-pound Kaden Smith and knocked away a K.J. Costello pass.

“We left him in there to play the tight ends in man coverage, and obviously we probably should have done that sooner,” Kelly said, “because he showed himself very positively in his ability to cover and see the football and not get a pass interference. He played with the off hand very well.”

Bilal, as even-keeled as ever, barely reacted when told of the compliment from Kelly.

“That’s nice for him to say,” Bilal said.

Bilal shows so few emotions, it can be hard to gauge his feelings. But Kirschner knew on Saturday night that Bilal’s finally fitting in on the field.

“He does everything he’s told. He does it by the book. He wants to be good. But he just doesn’t get real high or real low emotionally,” Kirschner said. “That’s why when I saw him chest bumping with some guys and flying around, that’s good for him. He needs that.”

Bilal also need a chance. He never really settled into a role in Notre Dame’s defense until last season. That role came behind Drue Tranquill, who rarely left the field. When Tranquill moved to the buck linebacker position in the offseason, an opportunity presented itself for Bilal. He just had to beat off hard-charging competition from sophomore Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and freshman Shayne Simon.

How has he responded? In five games, Bilal has tallied 25 tackles, including three for a loss. That’s more than half the number of tackles Bilal recorded in the last two seasons combined (47).

Even if you can’t tell, Bilal’s having a blast.

“Winning’s always fun,” Bilal said of the Stanford victory. “It was a great time. We did well defensively. It was a good time.”

That’s about as much as you’re going to get out of Bilal. But if that laid-back attitude allows for Bilal to keep playing like he’s played this season, the Irish will welcome it.

“I have great emotional control. I’m kind of chill. That’s my optimal zone,” Bilal said. “I don’t get really too high or down. It’s just being consistent and the same throughout.”

Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal (22) breaks up a pass intended for Stanford’s Kaden Smith (82) during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.