Joe Schmidt is gone. This is Nyles Morgan‘s defense now.
Some have argued it should’ve been Morgan’s defense last year—especially with nagging injuries robbing Schmidt of his productivity. But this isn’t an article aimed at indicting a former team captain or the braintrust atop the defense, but rather a look at the most important assumed starter on Notre Dame’s 2016 defense.
Praised this spring for his ascent into a leadership role, Morgan will need to show that his free-styling freshman ways are over. If he can, he’ll immediately insert a difference maker into the center of the Irish defense, a tackling machine who has the potential to make big plays and wreak havoc from day one.
6’1″, 245 lbs.
Junior, No. 5, LB
Morgan was an Army All-American and Top 100 recruit who picked Notre Dame after a long battle with many national programs, including Ole Miss. (Now that we know a little bit more about Hugh Freeze and the Rebels staff, that’s certainly saying something.)
Add to that the fact that the Irish won after losing both his area recruiter (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator and position coach (Bob Diaco), and it was a huge land for Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder.
Freshman Season (2014): Freshman All-American. Finished T-8th for tackles by a freshman with 47. Made 11 stops against USC and chipped in a half-sack against LSU. Played in 12 games, starting four after Joe Schmidt was lost for the season.
Sophomore Season (2015): Played in all 13 games, mostly on special teams. Saw back-up snaps against Texas and UMass.
WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR
A swing and a miss.
I’m pegging Morgan for a Top Four tackler on the roster, taking into consideration that finding snaps is going to be the hardest part for him. But Morgan is too athletic to keep off the field, and VanGorder and Kelly are too smart to keep a 240-pound heat-seeking missile off the field, especially when Jaylon Smith could help the Irish off the edge as a pass rusher just as much as a middle of the field linebacker.
No, he won’t be perfect. And if Morgan decides to freelance this season, he’ll do so mostly from the sideline while Grace, Greer Martini or several other linebackers get a chance to play. But all reports have Morgan a student of the game, and after a tough year learning on the fly, expect Morgan to take a huge step forward.
There’s still nothing but bright days ahead for Morgan, who only has two seasons of eligibility remaining after spending most of last year playing special teams. It’s hard to get too wrapped up in the lost season considering the fact that frontline college players rarely give you four seasons of production—they’re off to the NFL by then.
That said, Morgan’s challenge in 2016 is to go from precocious newcomer to grizzled veteran, all without a transitional season in between. If he’s over last season’s bizarre usage, it doesn’t matter if a certain segment of the fanbase never will be. Morgan’s got more important things to do—like be the most impactful defensive player of the VanGorder era.
Notre Dame’s leading tackler. And it might not even be close. Yes, he’ll need to stay healthy. And yes, he’ll never to cut down on some of the mental mistakes that can turn a three-yard gain into a 30-yarder. But Morgan is the perfect prototype for middle linebacker in VanGorder’s scheme—and that’s what sold him on Notre Dame in the first place.
It won’t be all perfect for Morgan. I wonder if there’s a role for him on third downs, especially in passing situations. But his athleticism, toughness and nose for the football make this a relatively easy forecast.
2016’s Irish A-to-Z
Torii Hunter Jr.
Tony Jones Jr.