SOUTH BEND — Drue Tranquill is the old guy in the Notre Dame locker room.
He just turned 23.
But the Notre Dame linebacker just celebrated a honeymoon and returns to campus for his fifth season, so …
“It’s funny turning 23 and looking around to see guys I’m playing with 17, 18 years old,” he said at Notre Dame media day last week. “I’m married, so I feel a little bit old. But wise in other ways.”
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It’s Tranquill’s wisdom and perspective that might make the biggest difference for the Irish this season. That’s not to discount the on-field production the Fort Wayne product provides — the rover-turned-linebacker was third on the Irish defense with 74 tackles last year — but it might come secondary to what he brings in the training room, locker room, cafeteria and wherever else his teammates might need him.
Tranquill’s kind of wisdom only comes with experience, both on and off the field. On the field, he’s overcome injuries (he tore an ACL during his freshman and sophomore seasons) to be one of the defense’s strongest weapons. Off the field … well, he just got married. As he says, “that puts me in a new league.”
“A lot of young guys have a bad practice and everything is right here,” Tranquill said. “They don’t have perspective. Marriage is something that really opens your eyes and makes you see what truly is important in life.”
The grad student could have left for the NFL draft. But after a 41-8 loss to Miami last November, he said “there was something uneasy in my heart.”
“I felt … I owed it to this team to finish what we started,” Tranquill said at Notre Dame’s ECHOES banquet in December. “Nothing’s guaranteed. We have a lot of work ahead of us, but I’m excited.”
So what does defensive coordinator Clark Lea expect out of Tranquill this season?
“Everything,” Lea said.
“He’s a consistent worker. He’s the model for what a football player is,” Lea continued. “He lifts hard, runs hard, plays hard, cares a great deal about who we are … I want that consistency in mental approach — never too high, never too low.
“As I’m in the box, he’s down there on the sideline keeping us focused on the next play.”
Lea calls the linebackers group — his position group last season — “the spear for us on defense.” So it stands to reason that one of the team’s most critical pieces at that position will carry over.
“They all know who Drue is,” Lea said of Tranquill’s teammates. “You want to equip him with the perspective to be that voice and know that he’s going to be heard.”
That kind of influence doesn’t come overnight. But as Tranquill enters his fifth year on campus, it’s safe to say he’s earned it. And it isn’t confined to the football field.
Take senior Asmar Bilal. Last season, what began as a relationship between two teammates that played the same position slowly grew into a bond that went beyond the field. Soon, the two were eating meals and spending time together. Bilal would bring Tranquill new books or articles to read.
Just last month, Bilal was a groomsman in Tranquill’s wedding.
“Anything that’s going on in his life I know about, anything that’s going on in my life he knows about,” Tranquill said of the Ben Davis graduate. “I love to hang out, have fun (with him). It’s a relationship that develops on the football end, but he’s someone I’ve grown to spend a lot more time with.”
Those relationships Tranquill builds — and the qualities he has — get noticed by his teammates.
“He presents himself in all aspects of our program from a leadership standpoint, both on and off the field” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. “And because he does it right all the time, we’ve got a lot of guys following him.”
As for what Tranquill does on the field this season, it will be a bit of a transition to linebacker. He’ll be a lot closer to the action, so his instincts will need to kick in.
“Find the ball and get the ball down,” he said. “That’s kind of what I did at Carroll (High School). It’s fun to be closer to the ball and more in the action, but it’s a learning process too.”
But Kelly expects the move to be seamless.
“His instincts were really good for a box player,” he said. “Sometimes they’re not quite as easily seen. In other words, he doesn’t feel the ball, the ball carrier, and where his fits are, he just naturally had a nice nose for it right away, and he’s progressed in pass coverage and all the little pieces of that position.”
Fellow linebacker Te’von Coney expects that he and Tranquill will make a formidable duo.
“To have someone who knows the defense just as well as you makes it a little bit easier for you. I think a lot of great things are going to happen,” he said. “You can tell he’s been around and has played a lot of football. That makes guys like myself and others very comfortable. We listen to what he has to say, coaching points he brings up. He might see things younger guys don’t see.”
On the field or off it, Tranquill’s presence will be felt by Notre Dame this season. And the biggest dividends might start in the simplest ways.
“My mom always told me, ‘If you want people to care about what you have to say, they first have to know you care,’” Tranquill said. “If you want to earn respect from anyone, it starts with a relationship.”