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Notre Dame Football: Who’s the next Asmar Bilal?

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Which tentative starter surprises by exceeding expectation?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 21 Notre Dame at Georgia Photo by Michael Wade/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

One of the biggest surprises of the 2019 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team was the play of fifth year senior linebacker Asmar Bilal. He had started 10 games in 2018 at rover and was transitioning to buck to replace the talents of Drue Tranquill. There were very few among the fanbase, and the media for that matter, who believed it was going to remain Bilal’s job as the season progressed. “Certainly by the Georgia game Jack Lamb or Shayne Simon will emerge as the starter”, we all exclaimed! That seemed to be the case after the Louisville game, as it looked like the concerns about the linebacker position, that were raised in the spring, were justified. But something funny happened after that... Asmar Bilal flipped the script entirely. I’m not going to argue that Bilal was one of the three best defenders on Notre Dame’s defense last year, I don’t think I believe that. What I do know is that Pro Football Focus put him as an honorable mention on their PFF 2019 All-American Team and they had him ranked as the third highest graded defensive player on Notre Dame’s roster. Not too shabby for a guy many had pegged to, at best, split snaps at the position going into the season. So now in 2020, we now have new narrative question to ask: Who is the next Asmar Bilal? (dramatic music plays)

The Criteria

Before we can figure out who is the next Asmar Bilal, we need to establish what that means. There were three linebackers who were listed as question marks last year, which included Drew White and Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Owusu-Koramoah had never started but the expectation was that he’d have a breakout season. He did. Drew White performed amicably in his lone start of 2018 against Navy but there wasn’t a lot of expectation going into the season. He finished tied with Owusu-Koramoah as the team leader in tackles. The difference between the three linebackers PERFECTLY encompasses what does and doesn’t fit the criteria. With JOK and Drew White, we didn’t know anything. Asmar Bilal on the other hand, was a player that had started for, more or less, a whole season, we had what we thought were all the facts. So the player who is “The next Asmar Bilal” needs to be a guy who we’ve seen and may have written off.

The Candidates

Jafar Armstrong

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Stanford Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

This is the obvious one right? Following a disappointing and injury plagued 2019 season, Armstrong is listed as the starter per the highly reputable Our Lads Depth Chart. The converted wide receiver filled in for Dexter Williams during his suspension last season and expectations going into 2019 were pretty lofty. The talk was that a large part of the offense was being based around his skill set and after the first drive against Louisville, it seemed to be the case. It was on that first drive that he suffered an injury to his core, a torn abdominal muscle that required surgery and kept him out for over a month. The player that returned was certainly not the one they had expected, as he didn’t seem fully healthy and finished the season with a stat-line of 122 yards on 46 rushes, just 2.65 yards per carry. So now going into 2020, many people have already written off Jafar Armstrong. If the Jafar Armstrong the staff expected in 2019 shows up in 2020, he’ll definitely be a top candidate to be the next Asmir Bilal.

Houston Griffith

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: NOV 17 Syracuse v Notre Dame Photo by Rich Graessle/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When Isiah Pryor, the safety from Ohio State, grad transferred to Notre Dame, many looked at his lofty recruiting ranking and said, “looks like Kyle found his safety partner.” It then came as a shock to some, that after the lone spring practice, it was Houston Griffith, not Pryor, who was running with the ones and impressing those in attendance. As a freshman Griffith had filled in at nickel after Crawford’s injury in 2018 but didn’t see the field against Clemson. Last year he was used almost exclusively in garbage time, though with Jalen Elliot, Alohi Gilman and Kyle Hamilton in front of him it wasn’t unexpected. With teams keying in on Kyle Hamilton, there will be ample opportunity for Griffith to make an impact.

Lawrence Keys III

Notre Dame v Georgia Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Larry started just three games in the slot last year, which puts him on the fringe of what I’d consider the criteria for this exercise, but it’s my article so it’s my rules. Keys is going to be starting in the slot come Navy and the preseason buzz to this point is silent. When the staff at OFD was asked to rank the Irish roster for the 2020 season, he came in tied for 21st, keep in mind there are 22 starters. To put Notre Dame’s receiving room into perspective, the New Orleans junior comes into 2020 having the most receptions(13), but the lack of a signature play is what has caused him to blend into the scenery. His high school film showed a player that was elusive and displayed fantastic top end speed, with Finke gone and the slot to himself, is this the year it translates to the field? I’m of the belief that one of the keys to this offense is going to be Keys’ play in the slot and we are all going to look a little silly having overlooked him leading into the season.

Brock Wright

brock wright notre dame Mike Miller/One Foot Down

Oh hey remember Brock Wright? He was the highest ranked player in Notre Dame’s 2017 recruiting class, the number 2 overall tight end and ranked ahead of former teammate Cole Kmet. When the aforementioned Kmet was injured a the start of the season last year, Wright was tabbed as the starter. During those three games, it was Tommy Tremble who ended up standing out and making an impact. Wright ended up parlaying those starts into a season that had just two catches for forty-five yards. Not great, but hear me out... these were Brian Kelly’s comments this spring in relation to the tight position as a whole:

“I thought last year when your offensive coordinator was the tight end coach, the guy that gets left out sometimes is the tight end because he has so many other responsibilities that that position in itself required much more focus and attention.”

So in comes John McNulty, a dedicated tight ends coach, who spent time in the NFL coaching Antonio Gates and Hunter Henry of the San Diego Chargers(2016-17). He was also an offensive analyst on last years Penn State squad that saw TE Pat Freiermuth second on the team in yards/receptions/touchdowns and TE Nick Bowers fourth. Brock Wright came out as of high school with lofty expectations, his frame and play style matched those of McNulty’s protege Hunter Henry, can he unlock Wright’s potential for 2020?

The Vote

Let me know who YOU think is going to be the next Asmar Bilal. Based on my criteria is their someone I left out? Let me know in the comments below.

Poll

Who’s the next Asmar Bilal?

This poll is closed

  • 17%
    Jafar Armstrong
    (87 votes)
  • 38%
    Houston Griffith
    (194 votes)
  • 20%
    Lawrence Keys III
    (103 votes)
  • 20%
    Brock Wright
    (105 votes)
  • 4%
    Other
    (21 votes)
510 votes total Vote Now