FOOTBALL

Hansen: Sizing up Alohi Gilman's NFL dream and his Notre Dame legacy

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Alohi Gilman’s value to the Notre Dame football program may linger long after he steps into his NFL dream.

And that dream is why he’s playing for the CFP 16th-ranked Irish (7-2) and not No. 23 Navy (7-1) Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium when the perennial rivals clash as ranked teams on both sides for the first time since 1978.

Because Navy waffled at the 11th hour, then declined to give its blessing for Gilman’s transfer to Notre Dame, the whole awkward reunion could play out for a third time in the 2020 season opener for both teams in Dublin, Ireland.

Last season, Gilman had seven tackles against his former team in a 44-22 romp in San Diego. The season before he was a bystander, stuck on the sidelines due to his waiver for immediate eligibility being turned down by the NCAA.

Which is why 2020 is in play, not that ND’s third-leading tackler will necessarily be back for it.

In a week when starting left tackle Liam Eichenberg and tight end Cole Kmet both declared definitively that they’d be returning to the Irish next season, don’t expect Gilman to join the chorus.

Gilman’s father, Asai, told the Tribune this week that his son planned to turn his attention toward answering that question Dec. 1 — the day after the Irish regular-season ends at Stanford — and then make a decision in the two-week window that follows.

“Alohi’s focused on completing the season and wanting to keep the main thing, the main thing,” Asai Gilman said. “I have a Google Doc, where I tabulated all the information about agents. I spoke to him about that one time in the middle of the season and then we let it go.

“The question really becomes pretty simple, if Alohi did come back to Notre Dame, what would he be coming back for when you consider his NFL aspirations? He’ll have his degree in December.”

The answer seems pretty simple — and universal too — when talking to NFL Draft analysts about the 5-foot-11, 202-pound Laie, Hawaii, product.

“Gilman sniffs out plays due to his high football IQ and instincts,” Dane Brugler of The Athletic said. “He anticipates and attacks, showing the compete skills to be a clamp tackler or play through the hands of the receiver.

“But his lack of ideal measureables — size, length and speed — will be an issue for teams and likely keep him on day 3 (rounds 4-7) of the draft.”

And as Asai Gilman pointed out, Alohi isn’t going to grow another inch in the next year or get appreciably faster.

“He can run a 4.47. That’s what he’s run before,” the elder Gilman said. “Speed is more of a technical race: field speed vs. linear speed. If (the NFL scouts) really want to see the 4.4, he just needs to get in the lab on that one. But whether he moves up one round or down one is neither here nor there. It’s a question of if he’s ready.”

From what analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com is hearing, the NFL decision-makers believe Gilman is.

“I have him in the round 3-5 range,” Wright said. “I’d probably lean toward the latter. He’s really not improved or lessened his stock this season, nor likely would he if he came back to college for another year. He kind of is what he is.”

Even though Navy has had only 21 players go on to become NFL Draft picks all time and just two since 1995 (QB Keenan Reynolds and long snapper Joe Cardona), Gilman was initially convinced he could get to the NFL as a Navy player.

The Department of Defense in 2016 opened the door for graduates of the military academies to apply to defer their active service and be able to play professional sports upon graduation. Roughly a year later, they reversed field and closed the loophole in May of 2017. Gilman chose ND as his landing spot less than a month later.

President Donald Trump, incidentally, this summer reinstated the ability to defer the military service commitment.

“Alohi told me, ‘I ain’t going to be happy in my life if I’m sitting at a desk or leading 200 or 300 people and I’m watching ESPN on Monday nights and I know I could have played,’” Asai related.

“He said, ‘I want to test my skills to the highest. And given that chance, I want to step out.’”

Part of Gilman’s legacy at Notre Dame is he’ll be the first of the six transfers in the Brian Kelly Era — two conventional and four grad transfers — to actually get drafted.

More enduring, he helped change the locker room culture after ND’s 4-8 season in 2016. And he helped transform the position group most in need of a transformation, in 2018 and beyond.

Without Gilman, maybe five-star prospect Kyle Hamilton sees too much of a rebuild and not enough player development at the position, and goes elsewhere. Maybe recently committed Ohio State safety transfer Isaiah Pryor doesn’t see a fit.

For a school that spent decades shying away from scholarship-to-scholarship transfers, Gilman showed not only can the concept work at Notre Dame, but that the program is better off for going down that road.

Whither Okwara?

He still is likely Notre Dame’s top prospect in the 2020 NFL Draft, but Julian Okwara’s truncated senior season makes it difficult to believe so many of the early mock drafts that had the 6-5, 248-pound defensive end going in the first round.

“I don’t think his star is shining quite as bright as it was a few months ago,” analyst Scott Wright of draftcountdown.com said. “Coming into the year, I had a top 50 grade on him. I thought he had a chance to exceed that, play his way into the top half of the first round.

“That definitely didn’t happen. And the injury complicates matters.

Okwara suffered a fractured fibula in ND’s 38-7 rout of Duke last Saturday and is scheduled to undergo surgery soon. He had a modest 18 tackles this season. After recording eight sacks as a junior, Okwara had four this season, three in one game against Virginia.

“I thought even before the injury, the Senior Bowl was going to be big for him, to rehab his stock, get in those 1-on-1s against those top blockers and kind of show that pass rush ability that he only demonstrated in the Virginia game this season.”

“Now his availability for that is in doubt. If he isn’t able to participate in the all-star process, he’s putting a lot of eggs in the workout basket. He’s going to have to test out very well, because with him now you’re betting more on potential than production.”

Oh brother

One of the highlights of playing Navy for Notre Dame defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa the past couple of years has been playing against or at least getting to spend time with older brother Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa.

However, Adam, a former Navy offensive lineman, graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy last spring. He is stationed in Norfolk, Va., on the USS Mahan (DDG 72) and is the First Lieutenant on his ship. Adam is in charge of about 25 enlisted personnel.

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Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman (11) celebrates recovering a fumble during the Notre Dame at Louisville NCAA football game Monday, Sept. 2, 2019 at Cardinal Stadium in Louisville, Kentucky.

WHO: CFP No. 16 Notre Dame (7-2) vs. No. 23 Navy (7-1)

WHEN: Saturday at 2:30 p.m. EST

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

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

LINE: Notre Dame by 10 1/2