Alohi Gilman came close to being a part of the Notre Dame-USC rivalry from the other side

Eric Hansen | South Bend Tribune
ND Insider

SOUTH BEND —He was pre-transfer portal, when spools of red tape were expected for a college football player considering a change of area codes and a good lawyer didn’t seem like a cost-effective option to shorten the wait between eligibility windows.

Even if Alohi Gilman had had a clear path transitioning from his freshman season at the U.S. Naval Academy to his next step, he told himself he wasn’t coming to Notre Dame.

Then he scheduled an official recruiting visit there — and told himself the same thing again.

USC — ND’s rival that visits Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night (7:30 EDT; NBC-TV) — is where the now-senior safety figured he’d end up in a re-recruitment that looked nothing like it did during his senior season at Kahuku (Hawaii) High on the North Shore of Oahu.

ND, USC, Michigan, Utah and Arizona were among the options in the spring of 2017 that replaced earlier offers in his initial recruitment as a two-star prospect from the likes of Navy, Air Force, UNLV, Hawaii, Nevada and Weber State.

“I had a lot of connections there,” Gilman said of the Trojan program. “I had a lot of family in California. It’s closer to home. Just USC itself, everybody knows about them. It’s another opportunity that I liked. Being able to have high-caliber football and academics as well.

“I kind of wanted to do my own thing. (Former Notre Dame players) Manti Te’o, Robby Toma were from my hometown (Laie, Hawaii). They came here. I kind of wanted to create my own legacy somewhere else.”

So he scheduled his official visit to USC to happen shortly after he went through the motions at Notre Dame.

Except he didn’t go through the motions.

He fell in love with the place. And the USC visit never happened.

The sort of oddity in all this, with all the crisscrossing of recruiting battles between the cross-country rivals that meet for the 91st time on the field Saturday night, is that Gilman and fellow Hawaii native, defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, are the only two Irish defensive starters to whom USC extended a scholarship offer.

Once he found his new home, Gilman certainly found the rivalry switch fast.

“This week brings a lot of excitement,” he said of the matchup between the ninth-ranked Irish (4-1) and USC (3-2). “Everyone’s ready. Everyone’s amped up.”

Gilman is Notre Dame’s second-leading tackler this season (29). He has 1.5 tackles for loss, an interception, a pass breakup, a QB hurry, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery following his debut Irish season in which he garnered some scattered All-America mention.

Even in the year he was required to sit out (2017) to satisfy NCAA transfer requirements, Gilman impacted the program by helping change the culture after the 4-8 season in 2016.

That included organizing and leading 6 a.m. workouts on Fridays for all the redshirting players and being so intense as a scout-team player in practice that at times the coaches had to throw him out of the sessions.

He showed a different kind of intensity in the locker room at halftime of ND’s come-from-behind 24-17 victory at USC last November, that clinched the first-ever College Football Playoff appearance for the Irish, with an impassioned speech.

“I don’t even know,” Gilman said when asked what moved him to do so. “I just kind of go out and do things. But for me, if I feel passion about saying something, I’m going to say it.

“It was right after coach (Brian) Kelly said his thing. I felt I needed to say something. Energy was kind of low. Felt like we needed to pick it up a little bit, so there were some things I had to get off my chest, and I did it.”

Kelly didn’t get to see that side of Gilman until the two met in person on his re-recruitment visit, though he certainly knew of the safety’s skill set.

Gilman had 12 tackles for Navy in the Mids’ 27-26 victory of ND in Jacksonville, Fla., during Notre Dame’s 4-8 season in 2016.

“I was pretty certain this was a guy we wanted to aggressively go after,” Kelly said of the rare potential undergraduate transfer. “Mike Elko (then-ND’s new defensive coordinator) handled most of the daily interactions, and (recruiting coordinator Brian) Polian.

“So I couldn’t tell you exactly who was in it, who the other schools were, other than they came to me and said, ‘Coach are we in on this? Are we going to go down this road?’

“I remembered the film I watched, and I just simply gave them the green light to go pursue it.”

With safety the most dramatically transformed position group on the Irish team over the past three seasons, one can only wonder what might have been had Kelly not pursued Gilman, or had Gilman been turned off by the 2016 turbulence.

Once Gilman got to Notre Dame he had questions — pointed questions — for Kelly.

“How is this program looking? What are you guys doing to be better than 4-8?” he asked.

The answers to those questions and the vibe he got from players in the 2016 class — Julian Love, Donte Vaughn, Jalen Elliott and Troy Pride, in particular — changed his whole preconceived mindset.

“When I came here, they kind of opened arms for me,” Gilman said. “Kind of invited me into their brotherhood. I don’t know what it was, but there was a connection that I felt really comfortable with.

“Having faith in what was going on here and trusting my gut was the biggest thing, and I kind of went with it.”

Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates with teammates after an interception during the ND's 35-20 win over Virginia, Sept. 28 at Notre Dame Stadium.