Asmar Bilal didn’t pick up Justin Brent out of the backfield. Neither did the defensive back behind him in support. Presented with a gift Brent took it, galloping untouched and uncovered to the end zone during Notre Dame’s open practice a week before the Blue-Gold Game.
“That was just a bust,” Bilal said. “We were confused with the (receiver’s) split, how we’re gonna play it.”
The play was bad. But how Bilal processed it was good, revealing a positive about the sophomore linebacker’s first spring. He knows what he knows of Brian VanGorder’s intricate playbook. Bilal is also conscious of what he doesn’t, part of the reason why he met with linebackers coach Mike Elston at least a couple times per week during spring ball to review film and talk techniques.
Bilal is self-aware enough to look at sitting last season as a plus, even if that wasn’t the plan when he signed as a four-star out of Ben Davis in Indianapolis.
“In hindsight, I think I needed to red shirt,” he said.
Bilal finished high school at 210 pounds, will enter summer at 228 and plans to kick off training camp around 235. By then the first-team reps he took during spring practice might be gone as Te’von Coney and Greer Martini return from the shoulder injuries.
And Bilal gets that despite the coaching staff occasionally comparing his athleticism to Jaylon Smith.
“Coming from high school where I didn’t have to do anything but run fast, the playbook is really complex,” Bilal said. “I didn’t know the coverages beforehand or anything related to real football. For me this learning process has been a difficult one.”
Bilal said he understands the basics of VanGorder’s pro-style scheme that have tripped up young linebackers before. But the Indianapolis product knows mastering that call sheet will take a lot longer than his first full year in South Bend.
As many reps as Bilal got during spring – he made two tackles in the Blue-Gold Game – there’s a good chance he drops to second team behind Coney during training camp assuming Coney’s shoulder reconstruction can be rehabbed back to full strength. If the coaches put Martini at the Will to increase the starting lineup’s overall experience that could put another hurdle in front of Bilal.
“The pressure is there, but I’ve just been looking at it as competition with myself,” he said. “I feel like I know the gist, the basics. There’s things in the playbook that I’m not 100 percent about.”
That’s what summer is for as Bilal leans on James Onwualu as basically the only linebacker on the roster with real experience. Last year Bilal connected with Jarrett Grace for advice while watching from a distance as Jaylon Smith staged an All-American season.
Despite the fact both are Indiana products, Bilal and Smith weren’t close off the field. They’re not close on it either, at least not yet. As much as Brian Kelly has mentioned Bilal and Smith in the same breath before, Notre Dame’s latest in-state linebacker is probably years away from approaching that level.
But Bilal has to start somewhere.
“He’s got great potential,” Elston said. “He works hard. He’s an aggressive, physical football player. He learns really well. Is he Jaylon Smith? No. But he’s got great potential. Jaylon had to start somewhere and that’s where Asmar is. He’s at the starting point of what we see as a very promising career.”