Analysis: Who is the next Drue Tranquill — both short term and in 2019?

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the first handful of search results when Googling the name Drew White, Wikipedia offers that he is an international lawyer from Canada best known for his role in the conviction of Colonel Theoneste Bagosora.

Given how far Notre Dame sophomore Drew White was removed from a relevant spot on the linebacker depth chart for most of his season and two-thirds on the Irish football team, it wouldn’t have been that outrageous to connect those dots.

Until Saturday night in San Diego, that is, when the 6-foot, 226-pound Fort Lauderdale (Fla.) St. Thomas Aquinas High product became perhaps the most unlikely next man in since Rudy.

All six of White’s career tackles — in fact, all of his career statistics, period — came in a relief role during No. 3 Notre Dame’s 44-22 subduing of Navy at SDCCU Stadium. He replaced Drue Tranquill after ND’s second-leading tackler had his right leg roll under a falling Navy offensive lineman in the first quarter.

“God is so good,” Tranquill tweeted on his Twitter account late Saturday night. “So proud of the team! Great road win.. & let’s all take a moment to acknowledge (Drew White) coming in and doing his thing!! On to the next fam.”

The question as to who is the next Drue Tranquill — either short term or especially when the 6-2, 235-pound grad senior exhausts his college eligibility in five (or six) games — is one ND coach Brian Kelly has never seemed in a big hurry to answer.

Perhaps because there just isn’t a definitive one yet.

The short-term answer — specifically, who starts at buck linebacker for Notre Dame (8-0) Saturday night at Northwestern (5-3) — could actually be Tranquill himself, though that’s not the most probable outcome.

Kickoff is 7:15 p.m. EDT, and ESPN has the telecast.

Already playing with a cast on his broken left hand, Tranquill spent the second half of Saturday night’s game on the Irish sideline with his right leg in a protective boot after X-rays were negative and Tranquill was diagnosed with a high ankle sprain.

“I’ve been in this a long time,” Kelly said in his postgame press conference. “When confronted with injuries, I always take the tack of he’s going to be fine. My doctors are the most negative people in the world. Broken leg, broken arm — it’s always the worst-case scenario. So I don’t like talking to them.

“It’s Drue Tranquill. He may be jogging when we get back to the hotel. He’s just a unique individual. I wouldn’t count him out for Northwestern.”

Kelly’s weekly Sunday press wrap-up was cancelled, because the team stayed overnight in San Diego on Saturday and flew back Sunday afternoon, when the teleconference is normally held.

Kelly last week, though, mentioned Tranquill’s rare dedication to the work that goes into recovery, both from injury and normal wear and tear.

“I would think he rates up there with the top guys that I’ve coached relative to nutrition, hydration, seven days a week,” Kelly said. “It’s a lifestyle for him more so. Generally, you see that from much more mature professional athletes.”

White knows about recovery too. He missed virtually all of spring practice with a broken ankle and was an infrequent participant in August training camp while recovering from injury.

His college debut came on special teams, Oct. 6 at Virginia Tech. White, a two-star recruit per Rivals when he verbally committed to the Irish and a consensus three-star when he signed, was an outstanding special teams player in high school.

In his junior and senior seasons combined, White blocked seven punts.

“He continued to work through injury, dedicated himself to get bigger, faster and stronger,” Kelly said of White. “He found his opening on special teams. He found his niche this week with the triple option.”

But Northwestern’s offense calls for a drastically different skill set for opposing teams’ linebackers than does Navy’s.

Teams that are most successful against the nation’s No. 97 team in total offense, and a pass-heavy one at that, have linebackers who can play in space with strong coverage skills.

That could push sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath or freshman Shayne Simon onto the front burner this week.

Northwestern will further test the quality of ND’s linebacker depth if it can run its average of 80 offensive plays, seventh-most nationally, and one of four teams on the Irish schedule (Syracuse, Wake Forest, Ball State) that rank in the top eight nationally in offensive plays per game.

The Wildcats ran 79 Saturday in a 31-17 romp over then-No. 20 Wisconsin on Saturday and finally showed some semblance of a rushing attack — 182 yards, a season high and double their average.

As far as longer term, White may have given himself a chance for a longer look next spring, when middle linebacker Te’von Coney also exits the roster.

Junior Johnathan Jones is the most experienced of the next wave of linebackers, but not by much. Freshman Bo Bauer and Genmark Heath have been the No. 2s most of the season. Redshirting freshmen Jack Lamb and Ovie Oghoufo are intriguing as well for 2019.

There’s always a chance rover Asmar Bilal could move inside next season, as Tranquill did this season.

Breaking rank

The latest Amway coaches poll and unsponsored AP poll agreed Sunday with keeping Notre Dame at No. 3 after its 22-point win over Navy, the most lopsided in the series since a 50-10 Irish rout in Dublin, Ireland, in 2012.

No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Clemson and No. 4 LSU all held firm in both polls as well in a week when only nine of the AP’s top 25 teams recorded victories (11 lost, five had byes).

That doesn’t mean the College Football Playoff committee will agree with the AP’s order or even the four teams in a different order. In fact, in the first four playoff years, neither has happened.

And while Clemson and Alabama have each made the playoff field 100 percent of the time when landing in the initial top four (both 3-for-3), only two of the other 10 teams appearing in the first top four in the four-year history of the playoff have made the CFP semifinals.

ESPN will reveal the first set of College Football Playoff rankings Tuesday night at 7 EDT.

Getting up to speed

Notre Dame’s offensive line reshuffle and its best running back depth of the season to date helped the Irish to their second-best rushing total of the season Saturday night (254), 18 yards off their season high set against Stanford on Sept. 29.

Dexter Williams’ continual evolution into a back who can be counted on, even when the ball is not in his hands, and Jafar Armstrong’s wide receiver-esque matchup dilemma for opposing defensive coordinators is a promising combination at the top of the running back depth chart.

Armstrong was ND’s leader in receiving yards against Navy (64) and tied wide receiver Chase Claypool for game-high honors in receptions (5) in his first game since Sept. 22. Armstrong had 52 yards on the ground on nine carries with his sixth rushing TD of the season in returning from a knee infection that required surgery.

Meanwhile, with 142 yards on 23 carries Saturday night, Williams is averaging 128 per game in his four games back after a four-game suspension to start the season.

That would rank him seventh in the nation if he had enough games to qualify. Same goes for being eighth in yards per carry (6.9). There is no minimum games required for the rushing TDs stat, and Williams is tied for 44th, with seven, despite missing four games.

Squibs

• Freshman TaRiq Bracy did not make the trip to his homestate of California this weekend, left off the Irish travel roster because of a “coach’s decision” and not because the 5-10, 170-pound cornerback was not a perceived asset against the triple-option.

• Quarterback Ian Book improved his nation’s best completion percentage to .765. Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray is 2nd (.732). Book moved up a spot in the national pass-efficiency rankings to seventh (170.2).

• The Irish are eighth nationally in pass-efficiency defense this week, up three spots. Notre Dame has never finished the season higher than 10th.

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) walks back onto the field with a protective boot on his leg during the ND’s 44-22 win over Navy, Saturday in San Diego.
Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong (8) tries to get past Navy’s Hudson Sullivan (53) during the Irish victory, Saturday in San Diego.

Who: No. 3 Notre Dame (8-0) vs. Northwestern (5-3)

When: Saturday at 7:15 p.m. (EDT)

Where: Ryan Field; Evanston, Ill.

TV: ESPN

Radio: WSBT (960 AM, 96.1 FM), WNSN-FM (101.5)

Line: Notre Dame by 7 1/2