• Class: Junior (Eligibility: 3)
• On The Depth Chart: Bilal opened spring practice as the starting Rover linebacker but dropped to the second team after Drue Tranquill shifted from safety. Based on Tranquill’s spring practice performance, it’s hard to see how Bilal gets this job back in full.
• Post-Spring Status: Unchanged
Bilal At His Best
Bilal was an absurd exclusion from Brian VanGorder’s defense last September, as Notre Dame’s former defensive coordinator basically refused to play one of the better athletes in the front seven. Bilal didn’t get a snap against Michigan State or Duke on defense. He only got 11 snaps in that 3-3-5 debacle at Texas. The rest of the season was better, with Bilal posting a career-high five stops and his first tackle for loss against Stanford. While it’s hard to pick out a memorable stop, Bilal’s performance against the Cardinal showed what he could be when the matchups work. And based on Kelly’s spring practice commentary below about how Bilal fits at Rover, it’s easy to see him getting a look against Stanford, Michigan State, Boston College and Georgia this year, basically teams that want to pound the football.
“We think Asmar is a guy that physically can run with most detached tight ends or backs coming out in the role that we’re going to ask that Rover to match up. We’re not going to ask him to match up vertically and 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 but not put him in a position where he’d have to play more of a safety at that position right now.” – Brian Kelly during spring practice
Notre Dame sticks with its rotation plan at Rover, working Bilal and Tranquill depending on the situation. That gives Bilal a foothold in the front seven with linebackers coach Clark Lea, who will have to keep at least one eye on 2018 when the Irish replace Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini. It’s easy to imagine Bilal shifting from Rover to Buck after next season. But producing within Mike Elko’s defense has to come first, building up some credibility with the staff. This season won’t be about stats for Bilal as much as earning the trust of the new staff. Remember, Bilal could still be a two-year starter even if he’s a part-time player this fall.
Bilal doesn’t keep pace with Tranquill at Rover, ceding playing time even against the power run teams on the schedule. That turns the junior into a special teams specialist, which Brian Polian would probably take. Still, the goal for Bilal is to push his career forward after last season’s fits and starts. To not take that step would be disappointing, although there’s no question Bilal will be a future starter somewhere after next season. The Irish don’t have enough talent behind him and lose too much in front of him for that not to work out. Bilal will be a critical piece of Notre Dame’s defense in 2018 and 2019. But there are no guarantees this fall.
Through two seasons Bilal is on a similar track to Derek Curry (2000-04), who signed with Bob Davie and took a red shirt as a freshman. He worked sparingly on defense as a sophomore, getting time mainly on special teams. Before his junior year, Curry moved from inside linebacker to outside linebacker in new defensive coordinator Kent Baer’s scheme. Ultimately, the Texas product started 36 games there. It’s hard to see Bilal getting that much first-team work during the next three years, but he should be in line for 20-plus starts at least.
What The Future Holds
Regardless of how much Bilal plays (or doesn’t) this season, there’s a clear path to the field during the next three years. If the junior and former four-star prospect continues to progress, he’ll be in line for at least two full seasons of starting work.