Drue Tranquill hasn’t had the same opportunity as other members of the Notre Dame junior class to spend time and interact with his teammates on the football field.
While Tranquill turned in impressive work in 14 games and four starts for the Fighting Irish in 2014-15, he’s been forced to develop much of his leadership in the trainer’s room of the Guglielmino Athletics Complex.
With a matching set of torn ACLs – the left late in the 2014 season and the right in the third game of 2015 – it’s “take three” for the 6-foot-1½, 225-pounder out of Fort Wayne, Ind.
“Leadership isn’t necessarily about how much time you played or your title,” Tranquill said. “It’s about developing a relationship with guys on the field, understanding what makes that guy tick, what makes him who he is, what his family is like, what kind of background he comes from…
“Being able to pull out the best in the guys around you is what makes a great leader.”
If ever a player with four career starts is in a position to land a much-coveted captainship, it’s Tranquill. Not only has he played an impactful role while participating in just 53.8 percent of Notre Dame’s games the last two years, he’s left a positive, lasting impression among coaches and players alike.
“Strong leadership, strong presence on the field,” summarized Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s a guy we can count on. He’s very smart, a hard worker and he sets a great leadership tone.”
Those qualities are assets the Irish secondary desperately needs, particularly at the safety position where it’s been a hit-and-miss unit dating back to the last year of the Bob Diaco era (2010-13) as defensive coordinator.
“We ask a lot of our safeties,” said Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. “Drue Tranquill gives us great knowledge of the defense.”
Knowledge, tenacity, courage, determination, relentlessness, versatility…The list is extensive and it doesn’t stop there.
One of the assets Tranquill is missing, particularly in light of the back-to-back ACLs, is raw speed. His running mate – free safety Max Redfield – is the possessor of the wicked wheels. Tranquill was never going to run a 4.4 40-yard dash pre-ACL injuries, let alone now.
And yet from the first game in an Irish uniform in 2014, Tranquill has been – when healthy -- a disruptive force. He had three tackles in his Notre Dame debut against Rice in 2014. The next week against Michigan, he collaborated on a sack.
Tranquill made an instant impact off the edge of the Irish defense, making at least one tackle in 10 of 11 games before his first ACL blowout against Louisville. He was back and playing the disruptive role again last season, sabotaging the Georgia Tech triple-option attack and breaking up a pass in the end zone when fate raised its cruel hand again.
While celebrating the PBU with captain Joe Schmidt, injury No. 2 ended his sophomore season with nine games remaining
“It’s a part of the game we play in,” Tranquill said. “Look at (running back) Tarean (Folston), who just made a cut and tore his ACL.
“It doesn’t have to be a massive, don’t-show-the-replay type thing. You saw that with me going up for a celebration. When my brother tore his second one, he just made a little cut.”
Tranquill, whose determined approach to rehab allowed him to participate in spring drills earlier this year, will try to close the dark chapter in his football life. He accepts reality, which includes the understanding that he’s going to need intelligence and guile to excel on the back end of the Irish defense.
“I’m 230 pounds and I’ve had two ACL surgeries,” Tranquill said. “Coverage has been a huge part of my off-season, just honing and perfecting that craft moving forward. Camp has given me an opportunity to go against some of the best guys in the country on the offensive side of the ball.
“I’ve got to understand my leverages, my pace, my pedal…I can’t afford to make a mistake because I’m bigger and maybe not as quick out of my transitions as guys like Shaun Crawford and Cole Luke.”
Tranquill has never met a challenge he didn’t tackle with ferocity. Mastering the technique necessary to compensate for his shortcomings is a priority.
“When I get isolated on the edges, I’ve developed a mentality like, ‘Let’s dance. Let’s go,’” Tranquill said. “I’m not scared. I want to attack my game like I’ve attacked my rehab the last couple years and like I’ve attacked my entire life. (Coverage) might not be my biggest strength, but I’ll continue to get better at it.”
The injuries the last two years have given Tranquill a unique perspective. He’s had plenty of time to observe from the sideline. His evaluation of the Notre Dame defense is not as harsh as its critics.
“Two years ago, we were 6-0 going into Florida State,” Tranquill said. “We were playing really well and had a few injuries. You saw what our defense was capable of and you saw some flashes last year.
“In both years, we really struggled in the second half of the season. Call it injuries; call it lack of execution. We need to prepare to put together a full season.”
No one is looking forward to a full season more than Tranquill. When it’s suggested that he could be in line for one of the captain designations this fall, Tranquill lights up.
“It would mean the world to me, especially not having that much playing time under my belt,” said Tranquill of the possibility of being named captain. “That would be like, ‘Wow, the guys really do believe in me and what I stand for.’
“It would be incredible to represent our team in that way because this team, Notre Dame and our coaching staff mean so much to me. This program is really special and I would love to be able to represent it in one of the biggest ways.”