In the week leading up to No. 3 Notre Dame's win over Northwestern, one of the most important questions for the Irish was whether linebacker and captain Drue Tranquill would be available to play after suffering a sprained ankle against Navy.
Tranquill was clearly limited, but he was on the field frequently on third-down plays and managed to make five tackles, including a couple of important drive-killing stops, against the Wildcats.
The better news for the Irish is that Tranquill finished the game without aggravating the injury.
“Drue came out of it well,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We played him in our dime package and he handled it well. He stayed on the field for the last drive and had to make a couple of tackles and really stick his foot in the ground.
“He feels good after the game, so a real positive trend as it relates to Drue moving forward. ... I think he got out of the game feeling really confident that he'll be able to make some big strides this week in terms of playing first and second down.”
Tranquill made two particularly important plays. In the second quarter, with the score tied, he beat speedy Northwestern receiver Chad Hanaoka to the sideline on third down and laid a huge hit on the 5-foot-6 receiver. The play forced a Northwestern punt in Notre Dame territory.
Later, with the Irish ahead 31-21 late in the fourth quarter, the Carroll graduate stopped Solomon Vault short of the sticks on third-and-13. The Irish went on to stop Northwestern on fourth down and clinched the victory.
It was a gutty performance from Tranquill, one that impressed teammates who had watched him work to get healthy in practice.
“He's a warrior,” fellow linebacker Te'von Coney said. “That's the only word I can say for that guy. He's a warrior and he's going to do anything to go out there and be with us.
“He cares about his teammates and he's a great brother, so I'm happy to have him out there and he did a great job, stepping up big for us.”
Though Tranquill managed to make an impact despite his injury, the coaching staff knew his play would be limited and decided to save him for key situations. Sophomore Jordan Genmark Heath got the opening nod at the “Buck” linebacker position in his place.
It was the first start of Genmark Heath's Notre Dame career and he delivered, making six tackles, more than doubling his season total. Though there were some plays where the Irish clearly missed their captain at linebacker, the San Diego native was a capable replacement.
“I think for a first-time starter, he did a nice job,” Kelly said. “We felt when we played him in this game that he was going to be able to do a job for us that would not put us in a deficit position defensively.
“We had a front that was going to protect him and let him run, and what you'll see on film is a guy that was able to run and make some tackles for us.”
It seems that Tranquill stands a good chance of returning to the starting lineup this week, and Kelly said the linebacker could also get the cast off his left hand – which has had a broken bone since before the Virginia Tech game – in the coming weeks.
In addition to shedding light on Tranquill's situation, the Irish coach said tight end Alize Mack plans to practice Tuesday after missing the Northwestern game, reportedly with a concussion.