Full speed ahead? There's no happy medium for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman
Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman managed to stay in practice during the early stages, before the Irish put on the pads back in August. Since then? Not so much for the Navy transfer. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)
SOUTH BEND — There is an on switch and an off switch when it comes to playing football for Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman.
If a dimmer setting exists, the sophomore from Laie, Hawaii, hasn’t found it. Nor apparently has anyone else.
That’s why his award Friday night as ND’s Scout Team Player of the Year on defense at the Irish Echoes 2017 awards show took him by such surprise. Getting exiled from practice was a regular occurrence in his role of prepping ND’s No. 1 offense for its upcoming opponents.
“Too aggressive. Too into it,” explained Gilman, a transfer from Navy who was restricted from actual game action this season when his waiver for immediate eligibility was turned down by the NCAA in September.
“Everyone tried to tone me down. I just couldn’t do it.”
Head coach Brian Kelly, offensive coordinator Chip Long and offensive analyst Pryce Tracy all took turns in ejecting the 5-foot-11 Gilman, who has bulked up from 193 when he enrolled in June to his current 202 pounds.
By any measure, he remains the best safety on the Notre Dame roster.
Derrik Allen, from Lassiter, Ga., and Paul Moala, from nearby Penn High School, are expected to bump up the talent level as well, at the position group that needed it most, when they enroll next June. Both are expected to make their verbal commitments binding and official next week during the new early signing period (Dec. 20-22).
All six players who saw action at safety for the Irish in 2017 have eligibility for at least next season, including starters Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott.
New coordinator Mike Elko was largely able to hide the six safeties’ collective inexperience/limitations this season, though the group combined for zero interceptions — a first at ND in the era of two-platoon football (1964-present) if the trend perpetuates into the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl matchup in Orlando between No. 14 ND (9-3) and No. 16 LSU (9-3).
The Irish began practicing for the bowl on Saturday and Sunday before having to work around the exam schedule this week. LSU got its preparations underway Tuesday.
When the final of the Irish practice sessions staged in South Bend takes place on Dec. 21, it will be the last one Gilman can participate in/get kicked out of. NCAA rules prohibit transfer underclassmen from traveling with the team to the bowl site.
“I guess I’ll have a little more time at home and have to watch on TV,” he said.
Not that it will be easy or enjoyable. The watching experience this season didn’t get easier over time.
“Every day I struggled with that,” he said. “I tried to take it in as much as I can. Even though it’s tough, I learned a lot from experience. As time went on, I was able to embrace a number of leadership opportunities. I was able to make the most of it.”
That included organizing a group of players, who were not on the travel squads this season for various reasons, and getting them to 6 a.m., weight-lifting sessions on Fridays.
“At the beginning, we had a hard time getting everybody there,” Gilman said. “Obviously, (strength and conditioning) coach (Matt) Balis didn’t like that. We paid for the consequences, so I kind of just took it upon myself to have these meetings and assign roles, so we could get everyone out there.”
Gilman has shown those leadership traits everywhere he’s been, and he’s been a lot of places. Notre Dame is his sixth school in the past six years.
He attended private school Kamehameha in Honolulu in grades 7-10, then bounced to Orem (Utah) High School while his family took a field trip of sorts for a year.
Gilman returned to Oahu for his senior season, and he opted to play for the neighborhood public school, Kahuku, with his childhood friends. He then attended the Naval Academy Prep School in Newport, R.I., the next year before signing to play for fellow Laie product, coach Ken Niumatalolo, at Navy beginning in the fall of 2016.
His decision to leave Navy was in part because of NFL aspirations. It was also the centerpiece of his waiver request for immediate eligibility.
The Department of Defense in 2016 opened the door for graduates of the military academies to apply to defer their active service and be able to play professional sports upon graduation. Roughly a year later, in May, the department reversed field and closed the loophole.
Michigan, ND’s season-opening opponent in 2018, was among the schools that pursued Gilman during his re-recruitment, as were USC, Arizona and Utah, per Gilman’s father, Asai.
Gilman was Navy’s second-leading tackler as a true freshman with 76. A career-high 12 of those came in a 28-27 Navy victory over the Irish, Nov. 5, 2016, in Jacksonville, Fla. He played in all 14 games in 2016 for the Mids, including 12 starts, and saw action at cornerback, free safety and strong safety.
Gilman said he’s not sure whether he’ll be funneled toward strong safety or free safety in the spring but said he was trained at both in August training camp and would play any position that gets him on the field next year.
“Special teams, free safety, strong safety, all good,” he said. “I just want to play.”
And play at full speed.