Notebook: Notre Dame LB Drue Tranquill casts aside fears from latest injury scare

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Maybe it’s because Drue Tranquill handled two position switches and two comebacks from ACL surgeries so seamlessly that a little, old broken left hand almost became an afterthought to seemingly everyone around him.

Then the grad senior linebacker went out and practiced this week like it was just that, reinforcing the notion that Notre Deme’s second-leading tackler would find a way to transcend it Saturday night at No. 24 Virginia Tech (3-1) — and beyond.

“He’s just a pretty remarkable young man,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Thursday night after practice.

Actual kickoff is 8:21 EDT for an 8 o’clock start time. ABC has both the game telecast and the protracted buildup to it.

Tranquill suffered the injury — a fractured metacarpal, to be specific — in last Saturday night’s 38-17 drubbing of Stanford at Notre Dame Stadium, but finished the game, nevertheless. He played in a cast this week in practice and, per Kelly, will play in a smaller version of it when the sixth-ranked Irish (5-0) face the Hokies at Lane Stadium.

“We don’t see any issues relative to (grasping),” Kelly said. “Now he’s not going to be able to go out and grab ’em with one hand. There are certain limitations. He’s going to have to form-fit wrap and bring guys down, but (there are) no limitations to the point where it would not be in our best interests to have him on the field.”

Tranquill has 35 tackles this season, with four tackles for loss, one sack, two pass breakups and a QB hurry. His backup, sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath, has four tackles.

“Certainly, as it started to swell, he was sore,” Kelly said of the former safety and rover. “I think it was a little tender and sore on Tuesday, but today (Thursday) he was back flying around and playing like Drue Tranquill.”

On guard

Before either of them were starters, they were practice partners. In fact, starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg and replacement starter at left guard Trevor Ruhland spent the entire spring of 2017 working next to each other as backups, forming a chemistry they’ve dusted off this week.

The 6-foot-4, 295-pound Ruhland moves into the starting lineup Saturday night to replace arguably ND’s best offensive player at any position, grad senior left guard Alex Bars. He was lost for the season in the second half of Saturday night’s win to two torn knee ligaments.

“Words can’t explain how we feel, losing one of our captains,” said Eichenberg, ND’s first-year starting left tackle. “Three-year starter. Fifth-year senior. It’s just horrible what happened. I wish I could give him my leg, because I have a couple of more years left.

“It’s tough, but at the end of the day, he’s still here. It’s like having another coach out there. He’s still coaching us. He’s still helping us out, but he understands that we need to get the next guy ready. We believe in (Ruhland), and we’re excited.

“He’s a guy you could put anywhere. You could put him at tackle, and he would know what he was doing.”

That’s where sophomore Aaron Banks had been playing, at tackle, but Kelly pledged that the 6-foot-6, 319-pounder would see action Saturday night at left guard in reserve after auditioning there this week. Banks could very well be the long-term solution, depending how quickly and thoroughly he adapts.

Eichenberg said it’s a tougher transition than many people realize, moving from outside to the interior. and the junior speaks from experience.

“Coach (Harry) Hiestand put me at guard for one day. That’s it,” Eichenberg said of the former Irish offensive line coach, now with the Chicago Bears.

Technically, the experimentation at guard was a one-day venture, but in reality it was actually one play.

“I went to do a (B-gap) block, and I kind of just slipped off the 3-tech (defensive tackle),” Eichenberg related. “He was like, ‘OK, back to tackle.’ That was about it. It wasn’t much of a tryout.”

The confidence game

The Notre Dame players, made available to the media on Wednesday night, were constantly pressed about last year’s road flop at Miami (Fla.) and how and whether Saturday night in Blacksburg, Va., might be different.

Confidence didn’t seem to be a problem. Eichenberg, in fact, was so exuberant that he may have unwittingly made a few headlines in Virginia.

“It’s going to be loud. Our stadium’s loud,” he said. “I’m excited to go in there, kick the (expletive) out of them, get a win, and then get out of there.”

That’s kind of Eichenberg’s personality about everything. He’s a defensive lineman in an offensive lineman’s body. and that feistiness is one of the reasons the coaching staff invested in him to be part of the rich ND left tackle lineage.

To be fair, Eichenberg described the game plan last Saturday night against Stanford thusly:

“We really emphasized kicking the (expletive) out of the (Stanford) defensive line, and that goes out to our defensive scout team that gave us the best look possible. But it was just one of those things where we understood it’s a very good defensive line and we needed to step up.”

As for Kelly’s take on the pendulum perhaps swinging to the other extreme — at least when it came to words?

“I’d rather have a confident football team, as long as it’s not a cocky and overconfident football team,” he said. “They know that if they prepare the right way and they eliminate distractions, that they’re a good football team, and I’m OK with that.

“We’ve worked hard on that. We know who they are.”

Jones back in the running

What looked like a serious question on Sunday has turned into a certainty — and the good kind — late in the week when it comes to leading rusher Tony Jones Jr.’s sprained ankle.

When asked Thursday if Jones would play against Virginia Tech, Kelly responded, “absolutely.” On Sunday, Kelly wasn’t even sure that Jones would be able to practice the whole week.

Jones suffered the injury during ND’s win over Stanford last Saturday night. He finished with 40 yards on 10 carries.

Kmet back, too

Anyone paying attention knows sophomore tight end Cole Kmet is good at football, good at baseball, good in the classroom, too (3.6 GPA).

And apparently really good at keeping promises.

When he suffered a high ankle sprain Sept. 8 against Ball State, Kmet promised to be back ahead of schedule, both for last Saturday’s Stanford game and this Saturday night’s Virginia Tech showdown.

He did and he will.

“When you see Stanford and Virginia Tech on the schedule, there’s some incentive to get back,” Kmet said.

There’s also a lot of hard work involved on his part — 2 ½ hours the first week, and still two hours some days, including Thursday.

“He lives in (the training room),” Kelly said. “Incredible maturity. It’s unusual for someone to understand how important it is to put the time into getting back, and he did.

“It’s still a high ankle sprain. There’s still soreness. There are still days when that thing is flamed up and sore, but he’s back in there.”


• Each week the coaching staff is giving junior quarterback Ian Book a little more to digest in terms of evolving him as a starter.

This week it was more like a lot more to digest, courtesy of Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster’s propensity to change looks and tendencies from week to week.

“He’s been challenged like he’s never been challenged before in terms of recognition,” said Kelly of Book, who makes start No. 3 of the season Saturday night. “I really liked the way he handled himself today. He was really good.”

• The Irish practiced Thursday in Alumni Stadium, Notre Dame’s soccer facility, because there was a problem with the grass field at the LaBar Practice Complex. Lane Stadium in Blacksburg has natural grass.

• Kelly said the piped in crowd noise and Metallica music at practice this week was played at 115 decibels. According to the web site, that’s 10 decibels louder than a sporting event, five decibels louder than a rock concert, and the equivalent of an emergency vehicle siren.

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) takes down Stanford’s Michael Wilson (4) during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame’s Tony Jones Jr. (6) runs the ball during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.