CULVER — Alohi Gilman had some fighting words following Notre Dame's first fall practice Sunday.
"Probably one of the best tandems in the country, I'm going to say it right now," Gilman said.
The 5-foot-10 redshirt senior safety was referring to him and fellow starting safety Jalen Elliott, who both return after strong junior campaigns.
Gilman finished second on the Fighting Irish last season with 94 tackles, with Elliott not far behind in fourth with 67.
It was more than just the tackles that made Gilman and Elliott standouts on a Notre Dame defense that ranked 13th in points allowed last season. The duo combined for six interceptions, with each having two-interception games — Gilman against Syracuse, Elliott versus Ball State. Now with a full year of playing together under their belts, Gilman is expecting big things for 2019.
"Jalen is the left hand to my right hand, so we're able to work together, communicate well, putting ourselves in the right position," Gilman said. "Every time I step out with him, I feel confident."
Gilman has slowly emerged as one of the leaders for Notre Dame. After sitting out the 2017 season due to the NCAA's transfer rule, the former Navy player busted on to the scene in 2018. It culminated with his performance against Clemson in the College Football Playoff semifinal, where he recorded a game-high 18 tackles.
Notre Dame lost the game, though, giving Gilman motivation for the offseason.
"From that game, you could tell it's a team effort. One thing breaks down, another thing breaks down. Holding each other accountable, focusing on the small things every day and just being humble; coming out every day and working like it's your last," Gilman said. "Working every day to improve, that's the biggest thing I learned."
Unfortunately for the Laie, Hawaii, native, he wasn't able to play in the spring due to an abdominal injury. Not being on the field with his teammates was difficult for Gilman.
"It kind of brought me back to some feelings in my redshirt year when I was sitting on the sidelines. You know, being patient and that," Gilman said. "It was tough, obviously, because you want to be out there with your guys. You want to compete. But it all works out in the end."
Gilman said he's 100 percent healthy now and didn't miss any workouts over the summer. The redshirt senior showed no signs of slowing down during the team's first fall practice Sunday in Culver.
"Sitting out in the spring also was another humbling experience for me and trial that I worked through," Gilman said. "So just coming out here, running around, making mistakes, making plays — it's grateful. It's a humbling experience."
Gilman wasn't the only safety making plays Sunday. Kyle Hamilton, a 6-4, 210-pound true freshman from Atlanta, had three interceptions during 7-on-7 drills. Gilman — who said Hamilton is "like 10 feet tall" — enjoys seeing the young player make a strong first impression.
"It's good to see him coming out, especially as a freshman — it's tough. The learning curve is tough," Gilman said. "Him coming out, making some plays — it gives us confidence as well, for me and Jalen."
Safety depth behind Gilman and Elliott will be something Notre Dame tries to figure out during fall camp. Both Gilman and Elliott played more than 900 snaps in the 2018 season, a number Irish coach Brian Kelly would like to see go down to preserve his star players.
"I think what has to happen is there has to be some form of second group there that you feel confident that you can put in there if they need a blow or they're required to get them off the field because they do, in fact, need a blow," Kelly said. "Certainly, in the key elements of games, those guys are going to be on the field, but there's going to be times when we need to get them a blow, and we've got to establish a second group."
With one of the best safety duos in the country coming back, Notre Dame has a chance to shut down any potent passing offense it faces.
"Just anticipate a lot of plays this season," Gilman said.