DALLAS — Earlier this month, Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill was in New York for the National Football Foundation awards banquet. He was a finalist for the Campbell Trophy, also known as the “Academic Heisman,” and one of the other finalists was Clemson defensive lineman Christian Wilkins.
The day of the banquet, Tranquill and his wife, Jackie, went to the Hilton Midtown exercise room to get in a light workout on a recovery day. But when he saw Wilkins in there as well, Tranquill’s workout plans changed.
“Baby, I’m sorry,” he told Jackie. “I’ve got to ditch you. I’ve got to get after it.”
This chance encounter with a star player from an opponent the Fighting Irish will face Saturday in the College Football Playoff semifinal immediately became an internal challenge for Tranquill. If Wilkins was going to lift, then he was going to lift harder and longer. That’s the way he’s wired.
“I’ve just got this weird edge,” Tranquill said. “I can’t sit out. I can’t let somebody pass me up. It’s probably a fault, but it’s who I am.”
If that’s a fault, Fighting Irish coaches wish they had an entire team as flawed as Drue Tranquill. The 23-year-old husband and expectant father is the owner of a mechanical engineering degree and two surgically repaired knees. The two-time team captain is emblematic of everything Notre Dame aspires to be, and symbolic of the wild ups and downs the program has endured during his five years on campus.
“What a fantastic man,” said defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Clark Lea. “Drue is a very prideful person.”
Tranquill has pushed his body through a litany of injuries that would have ended some careers. He tore an ACL on an interception return as a freshman against Louisville. He tore the other ACL three games into his sophomore season while breaking up a pass in the end zone against Georgia Tech.
In a family full of fragile athletes, that brought the clan’s torn ACL total to seven. While the genes seem faulty in that area, they’re titanium-strength when it comes to work ethic. Competition with his brothers playing basketball on “our crappy hoop” in the yard, or football, or baseball, was always intense.
After each tear, Tranquill attacked rehab. A three-star prospect from Fort Wayne, Indiana, who was hardly considered a centerpiece recruit, he was pushed by that weird edge telling him not to fall behind and lose the place he’d fought tenaciously to earn in the Notre Dame program.
Tranquill stayed healthy and started every game for the Irish in 2016 and ’17, transitioning in the second of those seasons from safety to outside linebacker. He recorded 164 total tackles in those two seasons, becoming an indispensable part of the Notre Dame defense. Then the injuries returned this year.
Tranquill broke a bone in his hand in the first quarter against Stanford on Sept. 29. He played the rest of the game anyway, breaking up two passes in the second half, and much of the season with a cast on his hand. (That Stanford game was also the week he learned that his wife of 10 weeks was expecting their first child. You could say that Tranquill’s life hasn’t been too terribly tranquil of late.)
Then he suffered a severe ankle sprain against Navy on Oct. 27. Tranquill hardly practiced the following week leading up to the Northwestern game, but refused to be ruled out.
“The first step was being able to walk,” he said. “Then get on my toes. Then jog a bit, then run a bit. The adrenaline helped on game day.”
Tranquill played only on third downs against Northwestern. He still managed to make five tackles.
“He didn’t even practice, then he just went out and balled,” said defensive back Nick Coleman. “He’s the toughest guy on the field.”
Despite the injuries, Tranquill is third on Notre Dame’s top-20 defense in tackles with 75, and fourth in tackles for loss and sacks. His intangibles are bigger, earning a Campbell Award finalist designation and winning the Wuerffel Award, which is given to a college football player who “best combines exemplary community service with athletic and academic achievement.”
“He’s a soldier,” Lea said. “He’s battled injuries all season and never once played the victim. He’s played on one leg, he’s played with one arm. His intense drive to be the best he can be, I can’t say enough about that.”
That drive helped lead Notre Dame’s 2017 turnaround after a 4-8 crash in ’16. Still, the Irish faded late last season, being routed by Miami to fall out of playoff contention and then closing the regular season with an 18-point loss at Stanford.
A 10-3 record would have been considered an adequate rebuilding of the program and sufficient cause to go ahead and try the NFL. Tranquill was considered something of a tweener by pro scouts — not big enough to be an NFL linebacker, not fast enough to be a safety — but he certainly would have gotten a chance in the league if he wanted it.
And the timing was right off the field. He would have his degree. And in the summer of 2017, Tranquill got engaged to high school sweetheart Jackie Gindt — the proposal is a doozy, a surprise visit to meet Gindt in Iceland while she was studying abroad. The wedding was set for July 14, 2018.
Not yet, he decided. Tranquill and other Notre Dame upperclassmen — most notably defensive lineman Jerry Tillery — wanted to do more in college before walking away.
“I knew we had the pieces when I decided to come back,” he said. “I wanted to win a championship. I’ve never played on a championship team. I won a pee wee football championship in sixth grade, but never won a state championship in high school.”
As an independent, there’s only one championship for Notre Dame to chase — a national championship.
That seemed like a lot to ask heading into this season. Tranquill didn’t see it that way.
“If you’re not Notre Dame, you typically don’t believe in Notre Dame,” he said. “We did. … We want to go down as the best team in Notre Dame history.”
Week after week, win after win, that belief has been rewarded. And if anyone is the embodiment of the faith, determination and will to win that has led to this undefeated season, it’s the old, married, oft-injured graduate student who will be a father in 2019.
The team captain’s weird edge might be one of the few edges underdog Notre Dame has against Clemson. But good luck convincing him they don’t have a chance Saturday. There is history to chase, and nobody is going to outwork Drue Tranquill in the pursuit of it.
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