We are kicking off our 2018 “Now or Never” summer series with a look at senior Rover/Linebacker Asmar Bilal. This is something we have done the last couple of pre-seasons. Usually it involves seniors, or guys who are at a point in their careers where either they make a splash, or otherwise live up to their hype, or end their time at Notre Dame as relative disappointments.
Bilal arrived to Notre Dame with a good amount of fanfare from Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis. He was a composite top 200 player who held offers from Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. There was a lot of optimism surrounding Bilal as a freshman, even though he never rose above scout team. At the end of the year banquet in 2015, Bilal was awarded the honor of scout team defensive player of the year.
As Bilal enters his senior season, however, his career thus far has been underwhelming. In 19 career games, Bilal has tallied 45 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, and one sack. He heads into the summer as the listed starter at Rover, replacing Drue Tranquill, but with a number of younger, talented players sitting behind him, ready to take advantage of a playing opportunity presented to them. If for some reason Bilal loses his spot during the 2018 season, regardless of him having an extra year of eligibility, it’d be very unlikely he’d find his way back to the starting lineup.
Reasons For Optimism
When Bilal arrived in 2015 he was 6’2, 205 pounds, and the book on him was he was an excellent athlete (he played a lot of safety for Ben Davis) who needed the learn the nuances of the linebacker position. Unfortunately, his position coach for his first two seasons at Notre Dame was Brian VanGorder, who…wasn’t the best for someone like Bilal. In fact, he was probably the worst. When Mike Elko and Clark Lea arrived in 2017, Bilal had to not only start from scratch, but also unlearn all the bad habits he’d picked up from the previous two seasons. It’s not an apples to apples comparison, but practicing a bad golf swing is actually worse than not practicing at all, because at least in sitting out you’re not teaching your body the wrong way. I see something similar with Bilal.
Either way, Bilal missed out on years development, and it makes sense that it would take some time for Bilal to get up to speed, which he showed signs of doing in the spring. He was more decisive, showed better feel for the position, and consequently more confidence. He was consistently lauded by coaches and those in attendance for his improved play. It is notable he held off the hard charging Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, another player the coaches love, throughout the spring and it’s hard not to feel Clark Lea isn’t making a big difference for Bilal here.
There is also the fact that Bilal is no longer behind one of the best players on the team in Drue Tranquill, who moved the Buck linebacker position following 2017. There is something about being “the guy” at a position that can get a players attention. Because, lets be honest, no matter how much Bilal believes in himself and wants to compete for his spot, he wasn’t beating out Tranquill at Rover. That obstacle is no longer a factor.
Reasons For Pessimism
As a general rule, I’m very leery of players who after three years haven’t figured it out who are suddenly being counted to have figured it out, even given the circumstances laid out above. I felt similar to Ishaq Williams as he headed into the 2014 season (that never matriculated because he was dismissed from Notre Dame for academic reasons). I never bought into Williams suddenly being an impact player after being replacement level throughout his career. I feel similar about Bilal.
Another factor is Bilal is competing with guys who were recruited specifically to play this position, who already possess the skill set, and the game, the coaches are looking for in a Rover. It seems Bilal at Rover is more a case of the coaches trying to find a position for a good athlete, instead of him being specifically selected for the spot. Coaches are human, and they want to take their new cars, so to speak, out for a spin. It’s just a fact that it was another staff that made the choice to offer Bilal, and that works against him.
Most importantly, the Rover plays a lot in space, and Bilal has never looked particularly comfortable in space. He doesn’t have great instincts in the passing game, he’s not great matching up with slot receivers, and his open field tackling is a question. In theory, this is a good position for him, but in practice he strikes as a player who will always be evolving, even as a senior. And unimpeded this could lead to Bilal being a solid player, but with others behind him waiting for their chance it’s easy to see the coaches looking in another direction.