Asmar Bilal one of the NFL Draft prospects the pandemic has hurt the worst

Joel A. Erickson
Indianapolis Star

Asmar Bilal’s 40-yard dash should have happened on the first of April, with him surrounded by Notre Dame teammates, hundreds of NFL eyes locked on a perfectly primed Bilal rising out of his stance, legs churning, arms pumping as he chased his dream.

That was the day he planned to grab the NFL’s attention.

Bilal needed that moment, needed his chance in the spotlight. The Indianapolis Ben Davis product who hadn’t played in an all-star showcase in January, narrowly missed out on an invite to the NFL Scouting Combine. Notre Dame’s Pro Day was his chance.

Bilal is one of the NFL draft prospects the pandemic has hurt the worst, the guys who never got a chance to play or test in front of scouts, coaches and general managers before the spectre of COVID-19 pulled everybody off the road.

“I feel like there’s something about seeing somebody in person, seeing the explosiveness and the ability in person, it makes it more legitimate or convincing,” Bilal said. “I wasn’t necessarily able to show them that.”

Built for NFL

Bilal’s the kind of athlete who can catch an NFL team’s eye in the final month and a half of the draft process, force them to go back and look at the film again to see if there’s something the all-star showcases and the Combine missed.

“Asmar has the physical gifts of an NFL linebacker. He’s got the height, weight, speed, explosive power and strength,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea said. “His best football’s ahead of him, for sure.”

Bilal was something of a late bloomer in college. Always a freak athlete, Bilal initially started out at the rover position, Notre Dame’s linebacker-safety hybrid, and didn’t get to take over at his natural position until Drue Tranquill was snapped up by the Chargers in the fourth round of last year’s draft.

Fully unleashed at the Buck linebacker position last fall, Bilal made 79 tackles and 10 tackles for loss, improving with every snap.

“Any time you move positions, like he did last spring, there’s a learning curve involved in that, and I think what we saw was after a couple of games, he really settled in and was able to be really productive and instinctive and let his physical traits shine through,” Lea said.

Bilal, Lea believes, is the perfect linebacker for the modern game, a rangy player who can run alleys, be an effective blitzer and cover like a safety, owing to his past as a rover, often lined up in man-to-man coverage on tight ends and slot receivers.

All of those attributes are on film.

But to play that role in the NFL, a team has to know a player has the athletic ability to handle the role.

Adversity and innovation

Bilal was hoping he’d get a chance to show teams what he could do at the NFL Scouting Combine.

According to his Indianapolis-based agents, Justin Faires and Buddy Baker, he was right on the edge of earning one of the 337 invites issued this year; about 10 NFL teams wanted to see him on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf in Indianapolis.

“I really had high hopes I’d be able to squeeze in after a solid season,” Bilal said. “I was kind of disappointed. … I felt like I was going to be able to showcase my raw skills, my speed and my strength.”

Bilal recovered quickly, threw himself into his training at D1 Training in Tampa with eyes on Notre Dame’s Pro Day, training into early March as the coronavirus storm clouds began to gather.

As news of the outbreak grew, Bilal stuck to his plan, heading back to South Bend in early March to train there for a couple of weeks before pro day. By the time April 1 arrived, Bilal planned to be in peak condition.

“That’s when it hit,” Bilal said. “Once I got here, they kind of shut down access to the university.”

On March 17, Notre Dame canceled its pro day.

Faires realized he had to find a way to get a Bilal workout in front of NFL scouts. First, he called scouts and team executives, asking if they’d watch a video of a makeshift pro day, even if it wasn’t official. Then he called Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy, who gave him a comprehensive set of videos, outlining every drill Bilal probably would have been asked to do at Notre Dame’s Pro Day.

A couple of Bilal’s high school coaches agreed to run the workout at his high school field at Ben Davis, and Faires found a video crew capable of recording everything. On March 24, the day before the state of Indiana’s stay-at-home order went into effect, Bilal finally got a chance to run his 40.

Bilal’s solo ‘Pro Day’

Bilal put up impressive numbers at his makeshift pro day.

He measured in at 6-2, 231 pounds, then pounded out 26 repetitions on the bench press, a number that would have been the second-best mark at the Combine. Bilal ran the 40 in 4.52 seconds (a mark that would have been sixth fastest at his position) and ran the shuttle in 4.18 seconds (second best).

Bilal backed up the reputation he’d built as a freak athlete at Notre Dame. According to the numbers recorded, Bilal would have placed in the top 10 in every drill he performed on that lonely field.

But there were no scouts in attendance, no way to independently verify the numbers, and honestly, Bilal felt as if he could have done better. Instead of training in the Notre Dame gym and getting to peak performance, Bilal had been working out inside his house, trekking over to Notre Dame’s outdoor fields for the work he couldn’t do at home, making up a routine as he went.

Bilal had some help, to be sure, from Notre Dame coaches and from other teammates trying to devise their own impromptu workouts, but it wasn’t the same as the plan he’d put together before the coronavirus hit.

“I was kind of disappointed with my pro day,” Bilal said. “I did those numbers off of just raw strength.”

The good news is that teams are watching. When Faires called around the NFL, every single team said they would watch a pro day video, and there has been interest. Bilal has done video conference calls with the New York Jets and Atlanta Falcons, and if he doesn’t get drafted, a lot of teams see the former Notre Dame linebacker as a priority free agent, the kind of player who won’t have to worry about getting left out in the feeding frenzy.

The NFL is full of players who didn’t get a Combine invite, players such as Colts star cornerback Kenny Moore, another client Baker and Faires represent. Bilal is going to get his chance to prove he belongs in the NFL.

Even if this draft process has been far from ideal.

“It’s unprecedented,” Bilal said. “At the end of the day, it’ll work itself out, but it most definitely made it harder, just because the routine isn’t set to what everyone was expecting. I would never have expected to be trying to find at-home workouts to get ready for my rookie season.”

Or to run his 40 on a lonely field in Indianapolis, away from the NFL’s eyes.

In a time like this, all a player like Bilal can do is be ready for whatever comes next.

Boston College’s Dennis Grosel is brought down by Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal during the Nov. 23, 2019 game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Notre Dame’s Asmar Bilal (22) walks off the field with Jafar Armstrong after the Blue-Gold spring game April 13, 2019, at Notre Dame Stadium.