ORLANDO, Fla. — Notre Dame wants that 10th win.
A talking point among many players before Monday's Citrus Bowl showdown, the Fighting Irish (9-3) need a victory against LSU (9-3) to attain that feat.
For many juniors and seniors, it would replicate Notre Dame's 2015 season.
For Drue Tranquill, that's not the case.
The senior linebacker was a sophomore in 2015, when the Irish finished 10-3. But a torn anterior cruciate ligament against Georgia Tech ended his season after just three games. So even though many of his teammates can talk about a 10-win season from experience — only a handful of teams accomplish that each year — Tranquill doesn’t feel the same way.
“Whenever you play a part in something,” he said, “it’s obviously going to be more special for you. The 10th win this season would feel special to me. That was a great season as well for those guys, but when you’re not contributing, it doesn’t feel as if you were a part of it.”
Talking about being part of something, the 6-foot-2, 231-pound senior from Fort Wayne, Indiana, is a huge part of 14th-ranked Notre Dame’s strategy to slow down No. 16 LSU’s rushing offense, which averages more than 200 yards per game and is headlined by junior Derrius Guice and his 1,153 yards. Playing in the “Rover” position, Tranquill plays a linebacker-safety hybrid. That means he has to do a little of everything.
“He has to have the physical traits of a linebacker and getting in the run game and in the box,” Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko said. “And he needs to have some of the coverage skills of a secondary player, because we ask him to play some man-to-man and we ask him to play in the flat and run with wheel (routes). We ask him to do the skillsets of both but maybe not the full coverage component of a safety or the full run-defense component of a linebacker.”
Tranquill is third on the team in tackles (74), tied for second in tackles for a loss (8.5), second in sacks (three) and also has an interception, forced fumble and three fumble recoveries. In his career, he ranks second on the team in tackles (195).
And he’ll continue to add stats in 2018, when he returns as a fifth-year senior. With an extra year of eligibility, Tranquill announced his decision to return a month ago. He chose patience and development over the short-term potential of a million-dollar NFL contract.
“I feel in my heart it was a decision I needed to make,” Tranquill said. “I think I still haven’t played the position (weakside linebacker) that I’ll play in the NFL. Having another year to develop at that position will be incredible.”
Linebacker Te’von Coney, who leads Notre Dame with 99 tackles, is one of a handful of juniors who could declare for the NFL draft after Monday’s game. The others include defensive end Jerry Tillery, star running back Josh Adams and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown.
“I think that’s something a lot of people overlook,” senior tight end Durham Smythe said of the stability that comes with Tranquill playing another year. “When people are leaving early left and right, it kind of takes away from I guess the development of the younger guys. There’s a lot to be had and a lot to be given from the fifth year.”
However, it’s been a long road for him. It wasn’t just an injury his sophomore year. Tranquill also tore his ACL as a freshman.
“The first one, I never had an injury before,” Tranquill said. “So I think the news was pretty heavy on me. The second one, having just gone through eight months of grueling rehab, that weighed on me. My brother had torn two ACLs as well, so you try to lighten the moment a little bit but it’s still hard.”
He never started more than three games until his junior year, which he finished second on the team in tackles (79). Despite the team’s 4-8 record, having a productive season was a positive outcome for the Irish, Tranquill said.
That perseverance after two major physical setbacks was an early example of his leadership potential. While not part of the defense, Adams witnessed his teammate’s comeback and watched him provide a much-needed vocal presence.
“Drue is just an incredible dude. There aren’t a lot like him,” Adams said. “… It’s amazing the things he’s done and what he’s been through, coming back even stronger.
“A lot of guys look up to him.”
Not just to him, but a lot of opposing players look up at him — with their backs on the ground. LSU’s star offensive players could experience the same fate Monday.