Notre Dame safety @alohigilman eager to go against former Navy teammates

Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman (11) reacts to a play against Michigan in the first half of their game in South Bend, Ind., Sept. 1, 2018. (Paul Sancya / AP)

There is no more important element to success than belief in one’s self.

Alohi Gilman bet on himself in a big way back in June, 2017 when he announced he was transferring from Navy to Notre Dame.

Many pundits scoffed at the hubris of the decision. Gilman may have enjoyed an outstanding freshman season for Navy, but what made the youngster think he was capable of playing for Notre Dame?

“There were a lot of people who doubted me – from coaches to players to members of the brigade,” Gilman recalled during a telephone interview with The Capital on Thursday night.

“I didn’t doubt myself at all, not one bit. There was not one moment when I second-guessed this decision because I am very confident in my abilities and I knew I could play at this level.”

Gilman has certainly proven the critics and skeptics wrong. The redshirt sophomore has started all seven games of this season at free safety for Notre Dame and ranks third on the team with 38 tackles.

Ask Gilman if he is surprised to be performing so well in his first season of eligibility for the Fighting Irish and you hear a chuckle on the other end of the phone.

“I’m not surprised at all. I knew what I was going to do when I came here,” Gilman said. “A big reason why I was so confident is because I know how hard I worked to be ready for this season.”

NCAA transfer rules mandate that Division I athletes must sit out one season when moving from one school to another. Gilman initially tried to obtain a waiver from the NCAA, citing an interesting hardship situation.

Gilman contended that he committed to the Naval Academy under the belief he would be allowed to pursue a career in the National Football League immediately following graduation. Indeed, the Hawaii native was recruited to Navy in 2015 after record-setting quarterback Keenan Reynolds had been allowed to do just that, playing for the Baltimore Ravens after being selected in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Just prior to the 2017 NFL Draft, the Department of Defense announced that service academy graduates must serve at least two years on active duty before being allowed to apply to play professional sports.

However, the NCAA denied the waiver request and Gilman spent the 2017 campaign on the Notre Dame scout team. Word filtered out of South Bend that Gilman was playing so well against the front line offense he was disrupting practice.

Zach Gentry of the Michigan Wolverines fails to complete a pass as Alohi Gilman (11) of Notre Dame defends at Notre Dame Stadium on Sept. 1. (Gregory Shamus / Getty Images)

Gilman has more than lived up to those rave reviews, showing the ability to run sideline-to-sideline and fill the running alleys from the free safety position. The 5-foot-11, 202-pounder has 20 solo stops, two tackles for loss, two pass breakups and one forced fumble.

Head coach Brian Kelly has been impressed with what he’s seen out of Gilman so far this season. In addition to talent, the relatively unheralded transfer has given the defense a certain mentality.

“I would say the first thing that Alohi does is he brings kind of a toughness, a swagger if you will, to our defensive backfield,” Kelly said this week. “I think it’s rubbed off a little bit on our safeties. Certainly, he’s a really good player. He’s athletic, he’s tough, he can play the ball. But I think his presence has equally brought that kind of influence to others and has elevated their game as well.”

Gilman did not have many scholarship offers coming out of Kahuku High on Oahu, choosing Navy over hometown Hawaii. He spent the 2015-2016 school year at the Naval Academy Prep School, surviving the harsh Rhode Island winter thanks to the support of his football teammates.

Gilman arrived in Annapolis in June, 2016 and one month later did not need long to show the coaching staff he was ready to play as a plebe. Head coach Ken Niumatalolo, who personally recruited his fellow Hawaiian native to Navy, specifically recalls a special teams drill that Gilman grasped immediately.

“What I remember was his attention to detail as a freshman. I remember the special teams coach was going through all the points he wanted to see in that drill and the next day we went through the drill on tape and Alohi was the only one who did everything right,” Niumatalolo said. “What stuck out to me was that this kid’s football IQ was really high. Alohi is just a really smart football player, a tough football player.”

Gilman wound up having a huge freshman season, playing in all 14 games and ranking second on the squad with 76 tackles. He had five tackles for loss, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries in being named honorable mention All-American Athletic Conference.

In hindsight, the biggest game of his brief Navy career came against Notre Dame on Nov. 5 at Everbank Field in Jacksonville. Gilman was all over the field in leading the team with 12 tackles as the Midshipmen upset the Fighting Irish that day.

“Obviously, Alohi played well against Notre Dame in Jacksonville. I just wish they hadn’t seen him play so well,” Niumatalolo said this week. “They saw first-hand that he could play. They saw him playing against their guys. There is no better evaluation than seeing someone play against your own guys.”

Niumatalolo does not deny that he tried to talk Gilman out of transferring. However, he does not begrudge the player for leaving Navy in favor of Notre Dame. Gilman also acknowledged this week that his decision to transfer was also because “I wasn’t as passionate about the military service commitment as I should be.”

“Obviously Alohi is a really good football player and we wish he was still playing here. That being said, this is a tough place and it’s not for everybody,” Niumatalolo said. “I don’t take it personally. He had other goals. He wants to go to the NFL. That’s been a dream of his and that’s not your goal here.”

Niumatalolo felt better that Gilman’s decision was all about getting a shot at the next level and was not because he disliked the Naval Academy.

“It was nothing against the school, nothing against the players or coaches here. He just had other goals and you can’t fault a kid for that,” Niumatalolo said. “I’m happy for Alohi that he’s playing and playing well.”

Gilman told members of the Notre Dame media the final conversation with Niumatalolo was lengthy and emotional. Both player and coach hail from the tiny beach town of Laie and Niumatalolo knows many members of Gilman’s family.

“Me and Coach Ken had a great relationship. He’s from my hometown and grew up with my mom,” Gilman said. “So it was pretty tough. Obviously, he was disappointed in some ways, but at the same time he was supportive of my decision. It was professional.”

Gilman does not regret for a second the decision to attend the Naval Academy, which he actually made twice – once coming out of high school and again after graduating from the prep school.

“I had an awesome experience at the Naval Academy. I will never forget my time there. It helped mold me into the man I am today,” Gilman told The Capital this week. “I would say that about my year at prep school as well. Those two years together taught me so much about myself, about leadership, about overcoming adversity.

“I loved my experience there, I loved all my brothers on the team and I appreciate the coaches for helping me become a better football player,” Gilman added.

Gilman said the current Navy player he is closest with is junior safety Noruwa Obanor, who also played as a plebe in 2016. He recalled going against junior slotback Malcolm Perry during practice.

“Malcom Perry is a great player, kind of my archrival. We had a lot of battles during spring ball in 2017,” Gilman said. “My best friend at Navy was Noruwa Obanor. We were the only freshman defensive backs that saw time that one year so we developed a bond.”

Gilman had an older brother figure at Navy in Adam Amosa-Tagovailoa, another Hawaiian. In fact, Gilman is currently rooming with Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, younger brother of the Navy senior offensive tackle.

“Adam and I were pretty close and he took care of me while I was in Annapolis,” Gilman said. “Actually, I’m really excited to see everyone I knew from my time at Navy. Watching the film, I’m seeing a lot of guys from my class who are out on the field and playing well.”

Naturally, Gilman brings a certain expertise to defending the Navy version of triple-option offense since he practiced against it during August training camp and spring practice.

“I’m excited to get out there and playing against the triple-option. I actually enjoyed going against the option in practice,” he said. “I still remember the daily habits we developed for practicing against the option.”

Notre Dame safety Alohi Gilman eager to go against former Navy teammates