Despite all of the progress made by the 2017 Notre Dame defense, the one position group that fell short of expectations was safety. And those expectations were pretty low to being with. Notre Dame safeties failed to record a single interception all season and the play from both positions was often the source of angst for Irish fans. That could very well change in 2018 though – especially if some of the hype around former Navy transfer Alohi Gilman holds true.
Gilman unsuccessfully petitioned for immediate eligibility last year after his transfer, but was denied by the NCAA even though he did have a pretty strong argument. Regardless, Gilman is eligible now and ready to contribute. And, if ESPN is to be believed, he could be ready to do a whole lot more than just contribute.
Safety is by far the biggest question mark on what should be one of the nation’s better defenses following a resurgent 2017 season. Gilman, who was denied immediate eligibility last summer, started 12 games for Navy in 2016 and finished second on the team with 76 tackles, to go with five pass breakups. He’s in line to start for the Irish in the fall.
Notre Dame needs much more out of both safety positions in 2018. Nick Coleman converted to safety last year and was okay for most of the year, but by season’s end it was pretty clear he was more of a bandaid solution. Fellow starter Jalen Elliot had more downs than ups including a brutal outing in the Citrus Bowl, but did turn in a promising spring. Still, neither really instills much confidence currently though it shouldn’t be forgotten that Elliot is still very much learning the position after being more of a jack of all traits in high school.
Gilman, on the other hand, turned in a strong freshman campaign for Navy prior to his transfer and would have certainly seen the field for the Irish last fall had he be granted that waiver. Instead he was relegated to scout team duty last fall allowing only the Notre Dame coaches to see how he fit in an Irish defense filled by vastly more athletic defenders than the one he played in at Navy
Notre Dame fans finally got to see what the Irish coaches saw all last spring in the Blue-Gold Game in April and Gilman didn’t disappoint. He collected 6 tackles and a forced fumble with most of his damage coming early in the game against Notre Dame’s starting offense.
“He’s what we thought he would be,” head coach Brian Kelly said following that performance. “He started a little slow in the spring. I think he’s really picked it up to the point where he’s making things happen back at that safety position.”
Where Gilman can really bring something that has been severely lacking at the position is his tackling ability. Both Coleman and Elliot struggled in this area that is absolutely crucial for effective safety play. Gilman excels in this area. ” If you look at every time he’s near the football, there’s high contact with him and so that’s what we were looking at that position: High contact, plays the ball well in the air, a very smart football player,” Kelly said in April.
Right now it would almost be a surprise if Gilman didn’t start on September 1 against Michigan. He left the spring atop the depth chart giving no indication that he would let anyone else back into that race. It’s becoming clear that some outside of the program are picking up on his potential and what he brings to the Notre Dame defense as Adam Rittenberg’s ESPN column highlights.
With the front seven Notre Dame returns and the talent the Irish have at corner, if Gilman is able to be the answer Notre Dame was missing last year at one safety position, the Irish defense should continue to improve upon the foundation laid last year.