Forced to sit out a season, Notre Dame's Alohi Gilman eager to prove himself at safety
Dec 23, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; Louisiana Tech Bulldogs wide receiver Trent Taylor (5) runs with the ball after catching a pass against Navy Midshipmen safety Alohi Gilman (1) at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Louisiana Tech won 48-45. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports Show less
TIM HEITMAN, TIM HEITMAN-USA TODAY SPORTS
SOUTH BEND — Alohi Gilman could barely watch football. Couldn’t stomach it, really.
All he wanted to do was play. Not being able to didn’t sit well for a guy so highly competitive he stews when one of his six siblings beats him in a friendly card game of 21. His father, Asai, recalls a phone call before the Georgia game when his son told him he would rather stay in his dorm than be stuck on the sideline, unable to help his team.
After making the difficult decision to transfer from the Naval Academy after the 2016 season, Gilman had to sit out last fall per NCAA transfer rules. He went from a freshman starter to scout team in less than a year. During Fighting Irish home games, he dressed in street clothes and watched from the sideline. When the team was on the road, Gilman was left behind. To channel his frustration, he worked out all the time — twice on Saturdays. Strength coach Matt Balis became his mentor and confidant, helping him get leaner and more explosive. Sometimes they trained four or five times a week. Anything to stay busy.
“It was one of the hardest things coming here and not playing,” Gilman said.
Notre Dame’s spring practices conclude Saturday with the annual Blue-Gold Game. It may be a glorified scrimmage, but it’s also the first time Gilman will run into Notre Dame Stadium wearing his uniform in front of his family, which is traveling from Laie, Hawaii. It’s also a chance to catch a glimpse of a player who could make a significant impact in 2018.
“I don’t think there’s words, really,” Gilman said of his excitement level for Saturday.
Gilman has been sort of a mystery. In his freshman year at Navy, he recorded 76 tackles, second-most on the team. His best game was in a 28-27 win over Notre Dame, when he racked up 12. Brian Kelly casually mentioned at one point last fall that he might have been a starter had he been eligible. He’s expected to compete for a starting job this fall, but hasn’t played in more than a year.
His journey to Notre Dame started last spring when the Department of Defense announced that it had rescinded a policy from 2016 that allowed some service academy athletes to request to be placed on reserve status, rather than assigned active duty posts, in order to accept contracts from pro sports teams. Former Navy quarterback Keenan Reynolds, for example, received special permission from former Secretary of Defense Ash Carter to play in the NFL right away and then serve 10 years in the reserves. Athletes from service academies were now no longer allowed to do this.
The change prompted Gilman to take a hard look at his future, which he believes involves the NFL. After talking to his family and Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, who is from the same community in Hawaii, he made the difficult decision to leave the academy.
“I didn’t feel like I was very passionate about the service commitment, so I decided to step away,” Gilman said. “The whole transfer process was tough. It was a big decision. It was scary because you have a set future with the military.”
Niumatalolo was disappointed to lose a productive player, but also understood and supported the decision. Gilman’s father, however, reacted differently.
“I actually didn’t support it,” said Asai Gilman, a well-known defensive backs coach in Hawaii. “I recognized the opportunity that the Naval Academy had for him. But I was quickly reminded by my wife that he has dreams that he wants to achieve, and he’s passionate about what he does and we need to support him. I know the odds of (making it in the) NFL, so giving up an opportunity was challenging for me.
“But this young man knows what he wants and when he puts his mind to it, he’s gonna get it.”
Gilman chose Notre Dame over Arizona and USC. One of the reasons he picked the Irish, he said, was the coaches were straightforward when he asked why the program went 4-8 in 2016.
“They were really upfront compared to other colleges I was considering and I felt comfortable,” Gilman said. “I felt coming here, academics and football lined up. I felt they were going in the right direction (with coaching changes) and that I could contribute right away.”
That last part didn’t quite work out with Gilman being forced to sit out his first season, but he’s been taking first-team reps throughout spring and has impressed coaches with his ability to quickly learn the defense.
Despite being with the program for an entire season, Gilman didn’t have a chance to learn the defense on scout team. The way he picked up anything last year was by talking to fellow safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott, or picking the brain of veteran Drue Tranquill, who played strong safety before switching to rover and then linebacker. He’d talk to his teammates before and after practice to learn things here and there. But once this spring started, it was like starting from scratch.
“I started slower than I wanted to and it was frustrating,” Gilman said. “But as time went on, I’ve been able to pick up things and the more comfortable I’m getting, the more I’m able to make plays and put myself in position to make plays.”
Because it’s April, coaches refuse to reveal the pecking order at any position. Safety is a spot that will have much more responsibility in Year 2 of defensive coordinator Clark Lea’s system. He’s running the same defense as predecessor Mike Elko before he left for Texas A&M, but the safeties will be more aggressive, play in tighter coverage, and be directly involved in fitting the run as the defense evolves. Lea explained the position requires a “hybrid, unique athleticism.” Gilman will be in the mix.
“He’s a special kid,” Lea said. “Guys follow him, listen to him and trust him. It’s apparent. He’s consistent, dependable, all the things you would want, he’s got “it” as a leader. We want to harness that and let it shine as he goes. At times he’s flashed and at times we’ve had learning experiences and that’s just part of the process. We’ve identified him as a guy who can help us.”
While discussing the odd fact that no Irish safety recorded an interception last season, Kelly added: “He’s a guy who will get his hands on the ball.”
Gilman grew up in the same community as former Notre Dame stars Manti Te’o and Robby Toma and attended Kahuku High School, which has produced NFL talent such as Super Bowl champions Chris and Ma’ake Kemoeatu and Irish alum Kona Schwenke. Defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa is from Ewa Beach, which is about an hour south. Asai Gilman, who coached Alohi “from the day he was born” through high school, said he competes just like his predecessors.
"Every guy from this place that went to Notre Dame has the same mindset, and that’s how he was raised.”