Noie: Notre Dame free safety Alohi Gilman's a go after sitting out spring

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Bump into him on the academic side of campus — outside Hesburgh Library, inside South Dining Hall, across the quad as he hustles to another class as an economics major — and it’s hard to imagine Notre Dame senior free safety Alohi Gilman a football player.

With a backpack over his shoulder and a mild manner, the Hawaii native just doesn’t look the part.

Bump into Gilman on the athletic side of campus — inside the team’s new indoor practice facility, on the LaBar Practice Fields or fall Saturdays inside the stadium in front of 77,000 people — and the 5-foot-11, 201-pound missile will try to knock you into next week.

He looks that part. Plays it, too.

Something happens to the laid-back Gilman when he steps on the football field. Safety’s a collision position, and Gilman gets into his share. He doesn’t look like a truck, but hits like one.

“Off the field, I might be quiet; I might walk right past you,” Gilman said earlier this month in, naturally, a soft voice. “But on the field, I kind of hit a switch.”

That’s when Gilman adopts an alter ego, one teammates have dubbed the “Gila-killa.” Gilman likes the moniker. Get him in that mode and turn him loose to create havoc for a defense that needs a whole lot of that from him this season.

“On the field, I’m a different person,” he said.

That switch flip was really good last season, Gilman’s first as an active Irish. He started all 13 games. He finished second on the squad with 95 tackles. He was as disruptive as anyone on a defense that featured eventual NFL draft picks Julian Love, Jerry Tillery and Drue Tranquill. But that switch came with a price.

Gilman’s not the tallest or the strongest or quickest safety around, which meant he absorbed his share of hits. Following a ridiculous 19-tackle effort in the College Football Semifinal loss to Clemson (nine solo stops, 10 assists), Gilman was shelved with an abdominal injury for more than a few days or weeks. Try months.

When spring practice commenced in March, he was more spectator than safety. As the Irish ran through morning drills inside Loftus Center, Gilman often was left to pull a sled of weights around the track. That’s never a good sign for someone who seeks to be in the middle of everything.

For the second time in his time at Notre Dame, he was left on the outside looking in.

Following his freshman year at Navy, Gilman transferred to Notre Dame. When his waiver claim for immediate eligibility was rejected by the all-mighty, all-baffling NCAA, Gilman was forced to sit and watch. Oh, he played that fall on scout team, where he earned scout team player of the year honors in 2017.

Gilman didn’t come to Notre Dame to be a scout team star.

Still, he used that experience as a spring reference point. He couldn’t do much on the field, but worked to have an impact away from the game. In the meeting rooms. During conditioning sessions. Around the locker room.

He wasn’t on the football field, but football often wasn’t far from his mind.

“It was tough,” he said. “You want to be out there with your guys. You want to compete. It all works out in the end.”

It worked out for Gilman in ways he didn’t anticipate. Knowing he couldn’t play, Gilman still worked to be a better player. That meant more film study. He also became more of a technician and paid closer attention to body position, his feet, his everything. He spent more time developing as a leader in the locker room.

Gilman kept preaching patience and kept pointing toward preseason camp. In his mind, he had the date long circled — Aug. 4. That was the first day of practice down in Culver, Ind. When that arrived, there was Gilman, back in his starting free safety spot alongside senior Jalen Elliott.

Gilman ran around. He made some calls. He made some plays. He returned to Gila-killa mode. It was the healthiest Gilman could recall being in a long time. Irish football was back, but more importantly, so was Gilman. He was fresh. He was focused. He had fun. A lot of it.

“It was amazing,” he said. “You take those things for granted (but) just coming out, running around, making mistakes, making plays, it’s a humbling experience.”

Talk of the Irish defense these days often starts with a couple of guys on the ends — Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara. But for the whole group to be better than good this season, keep an eye on No. 11. Gilman could be the key to the group. If he’s flying around, if he’s making plays, if he’s taking that proverbial next step in his college career, this group could go from good to really good. Maybe great.

It’s still too early for any of that, but stay tuned. Watch out for them. Watch out for Gilman, named in early August one of seven team captains. Might he eventually emerge as the ringleader of this defense? Why not?

“I’m good with that,” Gilman said. “There’s a lot that we have to do. We have to bring all the pieces together.”

The pieces are there, especially at safety. Everyone likes to talk about Kareem and Okwara and Okwara and Kareem, but Elliott and Gilman, or Gilman and Elliott, could be one of top safety groups in the country. They already carry themselves as elite.

Talk of the best safety tandems in the country better include them.

Gilman considers Elliott the left hand to his right. Or maybe it’s the right hand to his left. Either way, they’re constantly talking back there, constantly figuring out ways to make plays. All day. Every day.

They just click. Elliott’s the more vocal of the two. Gilman’s always finding his way to the ball.

“The guy is such a competitor,” Elliott said. “It helps our room. When he competes, we all compete.”

Gilman can’t wait to do that this fall. Be it the opener closing quickly on Labor Day night against Louisville or the finale in Northern California against Stanford, the Gila-killa is ready.

His daily approach to the game, to his assignment, is pretty simple and straight-forward. Just like him.

“Hold each other accountable; be humble,” Gilman said. “Work every day like it’s your last.”

Just go play.

Alohi Gilman (11) backpedals during a drill at Notre Dame football practice at LaBar Practice Facility on campus Saturday.
Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates after the Notre Dame-University of Southern California NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 24 at the LA Memorial Coliseum in Los Angeles, California.