SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Funny how things work out.
Growing up in Chattanooga, Tenn., Drue Tranquill dreamed of wearing the blue-and-orange of Auburn University and playing football in the SEC. Both his parents attended Auburn, and watching SEC football on TV all day on fall Saturdays was a family pastime.
Yet here he is years later, playing safety and serving as a defensive captain for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. That’s what makes Tranquill so excited about facing the Georgia Bulldogs on Sept. 9. It’s something he has done in his mind dozens of times.
“SEC football was my life growing up,” said Tranquill, who moved with his family to Fort Wayne, Ind., when he was 12 years old. “I was watching it every Saturday. So I’ve seen quite a bit of Georgia just from their rivalry with Auburn. I know all about them. I’m just really excited to play them.”
The truth is, Tranquill is excited to play against everybody. That’s why he is a favorite among Notre Dame fans, coaches and teammates.
Tranquill was one of seven players designated by coach Brian Kelly to be a team captain for the 2017 season. The 6-foot-2, 230-pound senior has overcome two ACL injuries (one in each knee) during his career. One was suffered during a 2015 win over Georgia Tech as he knocked away a potential touchdown pass in the end zone.
Tranquill was given the game ball by Kelly following the 30-22 win over the Yellow Jackets.
Tranquill has been described by Kelly as “a vocal leader on defense who will do anything to help his team.” He plays special teams, has blocked punts, intercepted passes and recovered fumbles.
“He’s a guy that is very conscientious and works very hard at his craft,” Kelly said.
Last year, Tranquill started 12 games and led the team with 52 solo tackles, 2 for loss, and ranked second in total tackles with 79. He also had 2 pass breakups and an interception.
Tranquill is also a great student. He has a 3.74 GPA majoring in mechanical engineering. Accordingly, he was named a 2016 Academic All-American.
It hasn’t always been easy for Tranquill. Not only has he had to overcome the two knee surgeries and other injuries, but he’s considered a “tweener.” That is, he’s big enough to play linebacker but fast enough to play defensive back but is not necessarily physically ideal for either position.
Tranquill sat down with DawgNation’s Chip Towers this past spring to discuss his career and talk about that Sept. 9 matchup with the Bulldogs at Notre Dame Stadium. Here’s what he had to say:
Q: You talk about your love of SEC football, did you get any SEC offers in recruiting?
Tranquill: “Mississippi State was the only SEC team I got recruited by. I was on the scene late as far as recruiting. I was a baseball player. I was pursuing baseball for the longest time. I ended up switching to football kind of going into my senior year. So I was very, very late. I hadn’t been to any camps or anything like that. I started to kind of do the camp circuit late and picked up a few offers from the Big Ten and stuff. Notre Dame was really the core offer outside of the Big Ten. I got Cincinnati and few others, but no SEC.”
Q: Obviously playing at Notre Dame is looked at as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Georgia and its fan base. How would you say it’s viewed by the Fighting Irish?
Tranquill: “At Notre Dame, they set you up to play in big games every week. So whether it’s traveling to Florida State and having a top-5 matchup down in Tallahassee or traveling and getting to play in all these NFL stadiums, like Navy in Jacksonville last year or Syracuse up at MetLife [Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.] twice already, it’s just really cool to play in those big games against big teams. You get a little flavor of everything. You travel all over the country.”
Q: What do you think is the national perception of Notre Dame?
Tranquill: “I don’t feel like too many people outside of Notre Dame’s fan base like Notre Dame. So, I think week to week, just because of the tradition here and just because we’re Notre Dame, they don’t like us or have something against us. We get everyone’s best every week just because of the tradition we have here. There’s just something different about Notre Dame. You have only a few schools you can go anywhere around the country and find random fans. You see Auburn fans in Fort Wayne, Ind., but there are Notre Dame fans in the South, in the Northeast, Southwest, all across the country. Just having that type of presence there’s always something Notre Dame, you get every team’s best, I’ll tell you that.”
Q: How much have you thought about that Georgia game and what it will take to win it?
Tranquill: “Honestly we haven’t game-planned at all for them or [the opener against] Temple or anybody. We’re focused on getting better ourselves. But, I mean, I think when you’re talking about the SEC in general, you’re going to get tough-nosed defense. I’m sure Georgia’s defense is going to make it hard on our offense to score. On the offensive side of the ball, Georgia’s got the sophomore quarterback that looked really good last year and obviously they’ve got a power running game with those backs. So I’m sure they’ll have a great mix and throw a lot at us. We have to prepare all that.”
Q: Coach Kelly completely turned over the whole strength and conditioning operation and made changes with both coordinators, including Brian VanGorder. How has the transition gone with all the changes?
Tranquill: “Coming from Coach VanGorder’s scheme, he brought in this kind of intricate, NFL-type system where everybody, especially as a safety, had to know all the moving parts. You had to know what each and every guy was doing, from the defensive line to the corners to the linebackers. I think that built a foundation just in my football understanding and has allowed me to bring it into Coach [Mike] Elko’s system. Although Coach Elko’s system is completely different and great and unique and hard, I’ve been able to carry over some of my understanding into this system. What’s different about this system is it’s going to allow guys to play fast, play instinctive and not necessarily worry about what everybody else is doing. It’s more focused on know your job and know your job well and execute your job within the scheme of the defense and the scheme of the defense takes care of that in and of itself. I don’t have to know what he’s doing and he’s doing and he’s doing. If I do my job, the defense takes care of itself.”
Q: How do you like Elko’s scheme and how’s the transition going?
Tranquill: “When I came in as a freshman, Coach VanGorder’s first year, from what I can remember our first time running the defense was that fall and guys seemed a little more unsure than they are now. They didn’t necessarily understand their job. Whereas I felt like this spring our process of understanding and growing in the defense has been very accelerated. Guys have been on top of their stuff and I feel like with me, applying that foundational understanding of defense has really helped a lot of guys. They went from this scheme where they were asked to do so much, where in this new scheme they’re asked to just be ballplayers, play fast, play instinctively and not worry so much what every other guy around them is doing. I’ve seen a very accelerated process.”
Q: What was it like having to endure that 4-8 season last year?
Tranquill: “No one wants to go 4-8. You don’t come here to lose. You come here to carry on the tradition of excellence that Notre Dame has had. You come here to win national championships, to graduate. That’s what everyone came here to do. When you have a year like 4-8, a lot of guys look around like, ‘What happened?’ Because you don’t prepare for that, you don’t expect it. And so it was a tough time, a trying time for a lot of guys. I think a lot of guys got away from their passion for the game and it suddenly felt like a job and something they had to come do. Whereas through this winter and spring, I’ve seen a group of guys who, whether we’re getting up at 5 or 6 a.m., they’re excited to come in, they’re excited to work, excited to come together. I’ve seen a lot of guys get back to the love and passion for the game they’ve had since they were kids.
Q: How would you say Coach Kelly has handled it?
Tranquill: “It’s been a tremendous turnaround. Coach Kelly has put together a great staff, starting with our strength coaches all the way to our position coaches and coordinators. He’s done an incredible job of assembling a staff that cares about winning and cares about being Notre Dame men. Putting all that together has made for a pretty good offseason.”
Q: Is it too much change to handle all at once?
Tranquill: “Change is hard regardless, but when you go 4-8, everyone realizes that change needed to happen. Guys who have been in the program, especially myself, saw where change needed to happen. Coach Kelly addressed those issues. He met with every single guy on the team, from the captains and three- and four-year starters to guys that just walked on in the fall. He asked them what they thought, what they thought needed to change, what their experience was. I really respect that of him. Obviously, he took all that into consideration and made the right choices.”
Q: You guys have a lot of big games on 2017 schedule. Does Georgia stand out?
Tranquill: “First and foremost you have to focus on the here and the now and the process. So it’s offseason training, then it’s going to be Temple, then it’s going to be Georgia. But I think, stepping back and looking at our 2017 schedule as a whole, I think Georgia for me at least carries a big punch. Like I said, I have a history. I grew up on a family where SEC football was everything. My parents love football, they love Auburn. So I grew up as a kid having aspirations of playing Division I football, and SEC football, Auburn football, that’s what I knew. So when I moved up here, everyone just loves Notre Dame. I watched Notre Dame play in the 2012 national championship game against Bama and that was the last time we got a shot at an SEC team. And it didn’t go well. So heading into this season, Georgia’s an incredible-caliber opponent. They’ve got a lot of great players, a lot of great coaches, a lot of great history. So it’s going to carry that extra punch. I’m really looking forward to stepping on the field with them and competing. That’s what we come to Notre Dame to do, to compete with the best. I’m sure Georgia will give us nothing less than that.”