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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover

Navy v Notre Dame

JACKSONVILLE, FL - NOVEMBER 05: Jamir Tillman #4 of the Navy Midshipmen attempts a reception against Asmar Bilal #22 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at EverBank Field on November 5, 2016 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Getty Images

Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2, 229 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Junior with three years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: For the time being, Bilal slots in behind senior Drue Tranquill as the second option at the rover position in defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s system. Despite that backup status, Bilal should see plenty of action against run-oriented opponents.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, Bilal chose Notre Dame over Michigan, Michigan State and Nebraska, among many other offers. A U.S. Army All-American, rated Bilal the No. 17 linebacker in the class of 2015, the No. 4 prospect in Indiana and the No. 246 overall player in the country.

Bilal preserved a year of eligibility in 2015 before seeing action in all 12 games last season. In the first third of the season, that action was largely, nearly entirely, on special teams, but after defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s dismissal, Bilal earned a more active role on defense, highlighted by making five tackles against Stanford.

2015: Preserved a year of eligibility.
2016: 12 games, 29 tackles, three tackles for loss, one sack (v. Miami).

Throughout spring practice, the role of the rover gained more definition, and with that, Bilal’s projection became more clear as the physical counterpart there in a rotation with Tranquill. Specifically, Irish coach Brian Kelly noted the rushing tendencies of Notre Dame’s first four opponents, possibly necessitating an influx of Bilal in September.

“We think Asmar is a guy that physically can run with most detached tight ends or backs coming out in the role we’re going to ask the rover to match up,” Kelly said at the start of spring practice. “We’re not going to ask him to run vertically or play corner routes. We think he’s a physical guy at the point of attack, a guy that is agile enough to play in space, yet not put him in a position where he’d have to play more of a safety in that position right now.”

If the Irish safeties struggle to start the season, it is within the realm of possibility Tranquill could move back to that role to provide some veteran leadership on the defense’s back-end, though that is not Notre Dame’s preference. If that were to happen, Bilal’s skill set should hold up just fine at rover, per Kelly.

“We started top-down teaching because we wanted to get Asmar on the field at the rover position,” Kelly said later in March. “We felt like his skill set was such that he could manage handling the position from a skill standpoint.”

Bilal looks like a four-unit coverage contributor on special teams from game one. He also has the type of speed and skill that could find a role in a sub-package (remember those?) for VanGorder, if the defense is able to keep enough guys healthy to play multiple schemes.

“The redshirt was the best thing to happen to Bilal in that he’s essentially starting his college career now. We’ve seen too often the difficulties that come with using talented defenders in bit roles, robbing years of eligibility from guys like [former defensive lineman, 2010-13] Kona Schenwke and [former defensive end, 2012-15] Romeo Okwara, removing a fifth-year opportunity that could have really helped all parties involved.

“Positional depth helped save Bilal in 2015. Now he’s going to need to be part of the solution in 2016, when a new cast of characters needs to step forward and lead with captains Joe Schmidt and [Jaylon] Smith long gone.”

Bilal has all the physical tools to demand playing time this season, provided a grasp of Elko’s playbook — that disclaimer is not Bilal-specific, simply a reality of bringing in a new coordinator. The biggest reason he may not be a primary contributor on defense in 2017 is the three starting linebackers (when lumping the rover in with the linebackers) are all established senior captains in Tranquill, Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini.

Simply due to the need to understand the rover’s duties, Bilal will not be the first option considered to spell Morgan or Martini. He will, however, step in for Tranquill whenever necessary. That should be the bare minimum of expectations of Bilal this fall.

The opposite end of that spectrum begins with Bilal excelling against the ground attacks of Temple and, even more so, Georgia. If he plays a vital part of shutting down the Bulldogs imposing and heralded duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel while also showing more than competence in the passing game, Bilal could make it imperative he become the top option at rover.

The reality will likely be somewhere between those two extremes, perhaps something along the lines of 45 tackles, highlighted by seven or eight against Georgia and Stanford each.

Tranquill has two years of eligibility remaining, including the 2017 season. By the time 2019 rolls around, current freshman Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah should be ready to take over at the position he was recruited specifically for. By no means, though, does that leave Bilal as an odd man out.

Rather, Bilal could use this season’s exposure as a foundation to work his way into the mix at middle or boundary linebacker following the departure of both Morgan and Martini following this season. The Irish currently lack depth at linebacker—aside from Morgan and Martini, only junior Te’von Coney presents much experience before getting to sophomore Jonathan Jones and freshmen David Adams and Drew White.

Provided Morgan’s and Martini’s careers of relative health, that dearth of depth is not an overwhelming concern in the short-term, but it will spark worry moving forward. If Bilal is able to step into Morgan’s role in a year, allowing Coney to fill in for Martini just as he will when necessary this season, that stressor may be readily reduced.

2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover

No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship