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Blue & Gold Illustrated

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Page 16 of 55 OCT. 7, 2019 17 At the start of the season, he had played in 32 career games and accu- mulated 95 tackles, including 7.5 for a loss. His statistics nearly doubled the combined total tackles of all returning members of the linebacking corps. Junior Jordan Genmark Heath was the other linebacker with starting experience, having started just one game. This put Bilal in a position of influence. "I think inevitably just being an older guy in the group, you take on that leadership role," he said. "I think a lot of guys look up to me due to my experience compared to some other guys and just my presence in the group." Bilal rose to the challenge and learned to speak up, perhaps thanks to regular phone conversations with Tranquill, who is now with the Los Angeles Chargers. "We see a different guy, one that re- ally is engaging, one that is really en- joying what he is doing, and I think we're seeing it in his play," Kelly said. "If that's what is going on in those con- versations with Drue, we're all for it." This is not the first time Bilal has quickly adjusted his temperament based on the encouragement of his coaches. As a freshman at Ben Davis, Bilal was almost booted from the team for his behavior on the practice field. "The freshman coaches wanted to kick him off the team," Kirschner said. "He wouldn't do what he was told. He was a little bit rough when he came up, and they wanted to kick him off the team." Instead, Kirschner met with Bilal and explained to him that he needed to listen to his coaches and stop play- ing only his way. Bilal responded im- mediately and there were no more behavior issues with him for the rest of his high school career — on the field or in the classroom. As the head coach, Kirschner also made it crystal clear to the other coaches that there was no chance Bilal wasn't going to play football in their program. "I said, 'Well, if you're gonna kick him off the team, I'm going to take him up to play for me,'" Kirschner said. "'I've watched him on Saturday mornings with the freshmen. He's pretty good. If you're kicking him off, I'm taking him to the JV team, and I'm going to make him really good.' "Then, of course, he becomes all- state and a MaxPrep All-American." Yet, for the first four years of Bilal's Notre Dame career, he didn't live up to those lofty All-America expecta- tions. Frequently, he was criticized for not having the instincts necessary to play the linebacker position. Enter- ing the year, many viewed him as one of Notre Dame's weaknesses, es- pecially going into the matchup with Georgia and its potent run offense. Prior to the game, the Bulldogs had two running backs averaging more than nine yards per carry. Even though Notre Dame lost, once the 23-17 contest was over people realized Bilal was far from a liability. He was a strength. With a 74.3 grade per Pro Football Focus, he earned the second-highest rating for an Irish defensive player against the Bulldogs. His run defense was also second on the team with a 72.3 grade. "We're really seeing some strong improvement from Bilal," Kelly said after the Georgia game. "He played really well. He continues to emerge as somebody that we feel is not even merited getting off the field. "He's played really well now in successive weeks, struggled a little bit against Louisville, and since that time has played very, very good foot- ball for us. That was nice to see." Heading into October, the team needs him to continue his elevated play and, who knows, after the sea- son he could join his mentor, Tran- quill, in the NFL. The only downside is that the better he performs, the more the media is going to want to speak to him — and that will never be a part of football he enjoys. ✦ Through the first three games, Bilal was third on the team with 15 tackles (10 solo). PHOTO BY ANDRIS VISOCKIS "I think inevitably just being an older guy in the group, you take on that leadership role. I think a lot of guys look up to me due to my experience compared to some other guys and just my presence in the [linebacking] group." — BILAL PHOTO BY MIKE MILLER

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