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College Sports: Notre Dame LB Drue Tranquill looks to follow in footsteps of ‘truly inspiring’ Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith

Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill is living out his dream of playing college football. But that dream is about to require a slight tweak.

The dream always centered around college football because Tranquill didn’t think the NFL would be an option. His dad was an engineer and Tranquill figured that’s the path he’d ultimately take, too. And maybe he still will — eventually.

Tranquill graduated in May with a degree in mechanical engineering. He finished with a 3.73 GPA and was a member of the National Football Foundation’s National Scholar-Athlete Class. He was a finalist for the Campbell Trophy, otherwise known as the “Academic Heisman,” and he won the 2018 Wuerffel Trophy, given to the college football player who best combines athletics, academics and community service.

The football aspects of those awards mean an NFL detour is likely in the cards. Tranquill, a two-year captain, is among the top five on the team in basically every defensive category: tackles, sacks, tackles for loss, interceptions and fumble recoveries.

“Somebody asked the question, ‘When did you know that you were going to have a special team?'” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said earlier this week. “I knew we were going to have a special team when Drue Tranquill was able to reach everybody in our locker room, because when you have a guy like that that can reach every player, he’s going to impact them all.”

If selected in next spring’s NFL draft, Tranquill will become the first Irish linebacker drafted since the Cowboys picked Jaylon Smith in the second round of the 2016 draft.

Smith is no stranger to Tranquill. Along with being teammates for a couple seasons in South Bend, Tranquill and Smith both grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind., and trained together.

Tranquill said Smith has hung out with some members of the Fighting Irish since they arrived in town this week and that he’s given them advice on playing at AT&T Stadium.

The two linebackers also have similarities when it comes to coming back from injuries. Smith suffered a freak injury in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. He tore his ACL and LCL and had to sit out his entire first professional season with the Cowboys. Tranquill had premature ends to both his 2014 and 2015 seasons thanks to two separate ACL tears — one in each knee. Tranquill said how Smith has rebounded from his injury is “truly inspiring” and that Smith has helped him a lot in his career.

“He’s a special human,” Tranquill said of Smith. “Not only is he a great football player, he’s a great person.”

When it comes to Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal matchup against Clemson, Tranquill can also get advice from his brother, Justin, who is no stranger to AT&T Stadium or the Cotton Bowl himself. Justin was a starting safety for the Western Michigan team that played in the Cotton Bowl two years ago against Wisconsin.

For a while, it looked like Drue would be a MAC-bound safety, too. He played safety in high school and, during most of the recruiting process, received most of his attention from MAC schools. His first four reported FBS offers were from Toledo, Bowling Green, Western Michigan and Miami (Ohio). In the summer leading up to his senior year, a trio of lower-tier Big Ten schools came offering, including Purdue. He gave a verbal pledge to the Boilermakers that summer.

Once his senior season rolled around, though, some of the who’s who of college football programs came calling, and Tranquill signed with Notre Dame over offers from Penn State and Wisconsin.

He came to Notre Dame as a safety. After his first ACL tear, he moved to rover. After the second ACL tear, he moved over to linebacker. He has now been a three-year starter, appearing in every game over the past three seasons, seeing the Fighting Irish go from a 4-8 squad to an unbeaten squad two wins away from the program’s first national championship in more than 30 years.

“His journey has been amazing in terms of injuries, overcoming injuries — just off the field, on the field, what he’s been able to do,” Kelly said. “He’s everything that you want in this business relative to coaching. Just a mentor to our players, a great leader, somebody that overcame adversity through his career here and a great representative of our university as a great student.”

Over the summer, Tranquill married his fiancee, Jackie, in Fort Wayne. Earlier this month, he announced at Notre Dame’s year-end awards banquet that they’re expecting their first child.

“It’s crazy to think I came here as an 18-year-old boy and I’m leaving as a 23-year-old married man,” Tranquill said. “I’ve learned so much and I’m forever grateful to Notre Dame. Obviously I’d like to go out on top as a national champion.”

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