Heading into the 2018 season, if there was one obvious weakness on the Notre Dame defensive roster, it was at Rover. Bilal was the presumptive starter there after Drue Tranquill moved over to the Buck linebacker position prior to spring practice kicking off. Subsequently, the Rover position was seen as a big question mark heading into the season; Bilal had never been particularly impressive, and those vying for his spot have yet to see game action. Adding to the uncertainty was the fact that whoever won the job would be replacing the production of Tranquill, who was excellent in 2017.
However, Bilal assuaged a lot of those concerns with his four tackle, including a big tackle for loss, performance against the Wolverines in week 1. The senior linebacker never needed to truly replace Tranquill, who is still in the lineup, and senior Te’Von Coney is taking up the middle of the defense. Steady play is what is needed, which is exactly what Bilal provided. He was strong at the point of attack, was disciplined in his run responsibilities, and flashed playmaking skills that hadn’t been seen in his first two seasons.
The only blip on his opening week performance was a missed sack on Shea Patterson that led to a big scramble and a Michigan first down. Bilal focused too much on stripping the football and didn’t wrap properly with his off arm. That said, on the glass half full side of things, he did shed the block by the tight end like a knife through melted butter, he just didn’t pay it off with the finish.
There was a play in the 3rd quarter following a Notre Dame interception that was reminiscent of his teammate Tranquill that really jumped off the screen live. Michigan attempted to get to the edge on offense, and Bilal quickly engaged, then shed his blocker to drop the running back for a four yard loss. This was a play where Bilal, on the play side, held up the point of attack, then took on two blockers in blowing up the play all by himself. Any hope of a quick strike from the Wolverines following the Irish turnover was dashed.
Later, Michigan tried to run option deep in their own end on 3rd and three, and Bilal again blew the play up before it had any chance of being successful. He was the option man for the quarterback, slow played on the outside without committing to the quarterback, who then pitched to the running back, thinking he could out run Bilal to the corner. Bilal, however, got to the outside shoulder of the running back, who had nowhere to go, and forced him to try and reverse field hoping the back side was not disciplined in their pursuit. He was wrong. Daelin Hayes was waiting for him backside, the back tried to turn it up field, but he was quickly engulfed by three defenders for no gain and a forced punt.
Those aren’t examples of Bilal merely playing his role, or holding up at the point of attack. That is him forcing the action and then paying it off with a big play of his own, or forcing a big play for a teammate. It was the best case scenario for Bilal in week 1.
Room To Grow
Brian Kelly made reference to “eye violations” on defense, referencing players who aren’t reading their keys and instead following the ball in the backfield, and I think Bilal was responsible for some of those. He was caught peaking and leaning a couple of times on play action away from him, allowing the tight end to cross his face and make his way into the flat. That sort of thing needs to get cleaned up because other good teams will take advantage of this the same way Michigan did.
He’s a good athlete, and he hasn’t had a ton of time on the field, so with more experience and game action, he should work this out as the season goes along.
I’m on the record as being very high on this defense, and Bilal being a plus player for them raises their ceiling even more. They can turn into a front seven that is pretty much without weakness, and if he shows he’s able to beat 1 on 1 blocks with consistency, now there are three linebackers who can pressure the quarterback. I referenced the 2012 group a lot over the offseason and just imagine a more athletic Danny Spond playing Rover for the Irish, with all of the other weapons in the defensive front seven.
Obviously, we don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves, but the first returns on Bilal were extremely positive and from the supposed weakness of this defense to boot. 11 more performances from him like that could make this a special, special unit.