Photo by Rick Kimball/ISD
Notre Dame Football

Not Following the Script

August 13, 2019
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In 2016, Khalid Kareem and Julian Okwara were true freshman who barely played. Okwara was the only one of them who recorded a tackle. (A whopping two, to be precise)

The next year they both became rotation players for the defensive line. They flashed the talent that had them rated as blue-chip recruits. Kareem had 5.5 tackles for loss and Okwara had for 4.5.

Last season was when they became starters. Kareem had 10.5 TFLs and deflected five passes. Okwara tied for the team lead in sacks and led the team in TFLs.

That’s a pretty natural progression for a lot of college football players. They build up as they go along. Now these two players are captains and poised to be even more disruptive off the edge. They are players we know will be stars on Notre Dame’s 2019 defensive line and if there were boxes that need to be checked to become that along the way, then they would have checked all of them off.

The defense has a few players currently working with the starters who have not had the same typical path to playing time. The three of them are having strong camps so far, but you can forgive fans for not predicting it before we hit August.

Asmar Bilal was a starter last season at Rover, but played over 300 less snaps than the player who started there the previous season. He did some good things, but underwhelmed as a playmaker in his fourth year at Notre Dame.

Drew White was on no one’s radar as a contributor until he stepped in for an injured Drue Tranquill against Navy. An injury kept him out of spring ball in 2018 and fall camp later that year. Then with an opportunity to compete for playing time, an injury forced him to miss spring ball earlier this year.

Donte Vaughn was one of three freshman corners to play in 2016. His potential was obvious, but it wasn’t realized over the next two years. He only played 55 snaps as a sophomore and when given an opportunity in 2018, he struggled while playing with a shoulder injury.

If games were played today, all three would be starting for the Irish defense based on what has been shown so far in camp.

It’s not a trio of players that I saw Notre Dame fans hoping to be a big part of this year’s defense. They are viewed as underachievers or injury-prone. It’s thought that they don’t offer the same upside as the younger players they are competing against.

But is that reality? Or could these three exceed the expectations of most?

Bilal and Vaughn have a 4-star pedigree. The raw talent has never been an issue with either. White was first team all-state playing for St. Thomas Aquinas against some of the best competition in Florida. No one who lacked talent could accomplish that.

Vaughn might be perceived much differently if he was fully healthy in 2018. An adjustment to play more press this season, which is something Brian Kelly spoke of in the spring, is something that also suits his size and skill set.

The same might be said for White if he was healthy for larger portions of his time in college. If he was in the two-deep last season, which seems plausible given his current standing, then his ascension would have been expected.

Despite being the starter at Rover last season, Bilal seems like the one who mast are skeptical about. Everyone has seen more of him and think he is who he is as a linebacker. But those that think that way are are counting out what Clark Lea is capable of as a coach.

Lea inherited a player a senior linebacker in Thomas Brown at Wake Forest in 2016. Brown was seen as a declining player and was not a starter at the beginning of that season. Lea helped Brown grow into an impact defender who was named MVP of Wake’s bowl game to conclude his career.

Can Bilal do what Brown did under Lea in Bilal’s final college season? It’s not out of the question.

There’s still time left in camp, so none of these players have secured starting spots yet. They also have to play at a level to keep those spots even if they earn them in August.

Any one of these three players could become unlikely impact players this season, though. Not every college career follows the perfect script and they all have a chance to be the latest examples of that.

 
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