Author: Keith Arnold

David Shaw

Offseason Q&A: Stanford

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Notre Dame’s season finale will once again have major implications—if all goes according to plans. The Irish will close the season in Northern California, visiting Stanford in a rivalry that’s growing quickly to become one of the more important ones on the Irish schedule.

No longer are the Cardinal the shabby outfit best remembered for a spunky marching band or a zany mascot. David Shaw has built one of college football’s most consistent programs, continuing Jim Harbaugh’s reclamation project as he’s put together a rough-and-tumble bully in a conference not exactly know for its physicality. Just as impressive, the Cardinal have also revved up their recruiting machine, another elite academic institution that’s winning its share of battles for blue-chip talent.

To get us up to speed on things at The Farm, Do-Hyoung Park joins me. A fellow St. Paul native, Do is a senior staff writer and former sports editor of The Stanford Daily where he’s covered the Cardinal football, baseball and tennis squads, while also serving as part of the football broadcast team on KZSU, Stanford’s student radio station. He’s majoring in chemical engineering.

(He also wrote this, which I’d be happy to co-sign.)

From the great state of Minnesota, Do provided some great, in-depth answers to the best questions I could think up. Hope you enjoy.

 

After an incredible run, Stanford finally had an average season, with the Cardinal finishing 8-5 on the year. Their losses were all respectable, but a tough schedule and just an average offense doomed David Shaw’s team. What was the attitude like on The Farm this spring? And from a psyche perspective, how did the players and coaching staff react to their most disappointing season since early in the Harbaugh era?

I definitely can’t speak for the players and coaches, but I can tell you one thing: It’s been clear to me for the last couple of years that despite all of the program’s recent success, nobody has started to take winning for granted — success is earned, not a given.

And with that in mind, I think the 8-5 season was more frustrating for the team than disappointing. They felt they were certainly going out there and playing well enough — on defense, at least — to earn their victories week in and week out (apart from the Oregon and ASU games). But game after game, seemingly one momentary lapse in execution would do the team in and turn what arguably should have been wins in their minds into losses.

Remember that Stanford actually did score the go-ahead touchdown late against USC but had it called back on a boneheaded chop block by running back Remound Wright. Remember that Stanford had Notre Dame on the ropes before cornerback Wayne Lyons pretty much forgot to cover his man on fourth-and-11.

Don’t let the record fool you — the 2014 Stanford team was worse than its predecessors, but not by much. Three games came down to one play that didn’t go Stanford’s way. If they had, we’re looking at 11-2 and probably a top-10 ranking to end the year. Isn’t football fickle?

The bottom line is that every week, the players were frustrated because they knew that they were capable of playing so much better. Nothing really changed for the Cardinal when they tore Cal, UCLA and Maryland apart to end the season — it’s that they stopped making mistakes and finally started playing to their potential.

Call it a rebuilding season, a downturn or whatever you will, but people around the Stanford program know that their record in 2014 wasn’t indicative of how good this program was (and still is), and I’m willing to bet that they’re poised to use the frustration of last year as fuel for their fire in 2015. These guys are used to playing with a huge chip on their shoulders, and that goes double for this season.

 

Kevin Hogan is entering his final season on The Farm. Irish fans have seen Hogan plenty, and are well aware that they were one of the quarterback’s favorite schools, but didn’t offer before Hogan committed to Stanford. Last year was an up and down season for Hogan, though he finished on a high note. How confident are Cardinal fans that Hogan is the type of quarterback who can do more than just steer the ship? The Irish had Tommy Rees, a “game manager” quarterback by most Irish fans’ appraisals. Is Hogan more than that?

Even through two Pac-12 titles and two Rose Bowl appearances, Cardinal fans have never had full confidence in Kevin Hogan. By now, they’ve resigned themselves to the fact that no, Kevin Hogan will never be more than a “game manager” in their minds. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Sure, it’s incredible when a program gets a quarterback like Andrew Luck that can truly carry a program and raise the bar, but Stanford doesn’t need life-changing play at the quarterback position to be an elite team — it just needs an efficient, mistake-free player that can effectively distribute the ball. And that’s exactly what Hogan can do when he’s at his best.

It was, as you described, an up-and-down season for Hogan last year, but he was dealing with quite a bit of adversity both on and off the field in having to play behind an offensive line breaking in four starters while also dealing with the illness and eventual passing of his father during the season.

Despite that, the accuracy problems that have plagued him in the past have seemingly gotten better, and when his offensive line is getting push for his running backs to balance out the offense, Hogan can be brutally efficient in dishing the ball on a dime to his playmakers out wide. Such was the case when he was 15-of-20 for 214 yards at Cal and 16-of-19 for 234 yards at UCLA.

His biggest problem over the last few seasons was that he wouldn’t go through his progressions and lock on to his biggest weapon, Ty Montgomery, and try to force him the ball, often into heavy coverage. But with two-plus years of starting experience under his belt and a deep, talented receiving corps around him, I’m expecting his mistakes and lapses to be few and far between this year. And that’ll be enough.

 

Perhaps the biggest change inside the Cardinal program is the defense. Even if Lance Anderson managed to keep the train rolling after replacing Derek Mason, Stanford needs to replace NINE STARTERS from a veteran defense. How exactly will they do that? Or are you expecting a major step backwards?

The defensive situation may appear pretty dire at first glance, but I’m quite surprised that people haven’t given Stanford’s defense at least the benefit of the doubt after it finished as a top-5 unit in the country in each of the last three seasons.

It’s not like Stanford hasn’t had to rebuild on defense before. At the end of 2013, the Cardinal lost DE Josh Mauro, LB Trent Murphy, LB Shayne Skov, DE Ben Gardner and SS Ed Reynolds, who were most of the entire defensive core of that 2013 team. (Four of the above are now NFL players.) The Cardinal didn’t even skip a beat.

It’s not like Stanford hasn’t been recruiting well on defense — the Cardinal are plugging holes with four-star and five-star recruits all over their two-deep.

And finally, it’s not like Stanford is going to be playing fresh faces — because of Stanford’s robust defensive rotation, only two of the projected starters on defense haven’t seen significant game action before.

Lance Anderson (DC), Duane Akina (secondary) and Randy Hart (D-line) are some of the absolute best coaches in the business and have proven track records. I’m sure the defense will have its growing pains at the start, but I don’t think it will regress by much.

 

Back to the offensive side of the ball. Stanford built their offense around a strong offensive line and a solid running game. But they couldn’t seem to find a go-to running back after having great luck riding guys like Stepfan Taylor and Tyler Gaffney. Who do you expect to take charge of the position group in 2015 and will the offensive line simply reload after losing Andrus Peat?

Shaw has made no secret of the fact that rising sophomore Christian McCaffrey will be the feature piece of the Stanford offense in 2015. Stanford fans were sorely disappointed that they didn’t get to see more of him last year, and for good reason too: McCaffrey is, without question, the most electric playmaker on this team and the future leader of this offense.

Last year, he averaged a remarkable 7.1 yards per carry and 14.8 yards per reception, and regardless of where he’s playing — running back, slot receiver, wildcat back, kick/punt returner — he has the speed and change-of-direction ability to be a game-changer. On top of that, he’s added a lot of muscle this offseason, which adds a more downhill, power dimension to his game as well.

McCaffrey isn’t going to be a traditional Stanford power back in the mold of Taylor or Gaffney, and I’m expecting Shaw to expand the playbook in a way he never has before at Stanford to exploit McCaffrey’s considerable skill set. I’d still expect Remound Wright, who was great to close 2014, in short-yardage and goal-line situations, though. Unfortunately, it looks like Barry Sanders will be the odd man out. I really wish that he’d panned out.

The offensive line shouldn’t take a huge step back with the loss of Peat, as former five-star recruit Kyle Murphy, who started every game at right tackle last year, will switch over to Hogan’s blind side and highly-touted sophomore Casey Tucker should fill in just fine at right tackle. This line struggled for most of last year but came together in a big way down the stretch — if it can retain that late-season form, McCaffrey and Hogan should have a big year.

 

It just isn’t realistic to think that the Stanford defense will fall off a cliff. So who do you expect to step forward on that side of the ball for the Cardinal? Can you walk us through the defenders you expect to emerge as big-time players in 2015?

The defensive line will determine whether or not Stanford’s defense will remain elite in 2015.

Solomon Thomas, the five-star crown jewel of Stanford’s 2014 recruiting class, was reportedly borderline unblockable in the spring, and alongside classmate Harrison Phillips, who put on 20 pounds this offseason, the defensive ends have tremendous upside but are still unproven. The ridiculous combination of Thomas’ size, agility and drive have the potential to make him one of the breakout defensive stars in not just the Pac-12, but the nation this year.

As the ESPN Pac-12 Blog said earlier this summer, though, the true make-or-break position on this line will be at nose tackle. There are currently zero nose tackles on Stanford’s roster, and the Cardinal will likely turn to senior DE Aziz Shittu to fill in at arguably the most important position in Stanford’s 3-4 defense. I don’t know if I necessarily expect Shittu to emerge as a star or not, but if Stanford’s defense is going to be successful, he’s going to need to have a big year.

Behind the line, expect linebacker Blake Martinez, last year’s leading tackler, to again be an underrated yet dominant run-stuffing force on the inside. And in Stanford’s revamped secondary, Kodi Whitfield, who transitioned from wide receiver to free safety, is poised for a huge year. He’s impressed just about everyone with how quickly he picked up the position, and as a converted offensive player, he’s going to have a leg up at locking on to opposing schemes and looks.

Don’t forget the last guy that switched from WR to DB at Stanford. You might have heard of him.

 

David Shaw is widely respected at the college level. His record since taking over for Jim Harbaugh speaks for itself. Yet last season, we finally heard some grumbling about Shaw’s performance—though mostly from Cardinal fans likely spoiled from these past few seasons.

That said, the Cardinal lost some games they maybe shouldn’t have (USC for one). Are some of the question marks (red zone playcalling, for one) just the product of a five-loss season, or has Shaw’s star lost a bit of its shine in recent years?

I’m surprised it took you so long to hear the Shaw discontent — Stanford fans have been grumbling about Shaw and his “overly conservative” playcalling since at least 2012. And, as you know, that came to a head last year when Shaw was the fans’ scapegoat for Stanford’s hilariously awful red-zone efficiency.

When you take a closer look at it, though, I don’t think Shaw’s play-calling has been the problem; his stubbornness is what has been holding him back a bit.

Shaw has always loved his run-first, methodical style in the red zone, and in Stanford’s run of dominance from 2012-14, he had the personnel to pull that off: The offensive line was stout and the running backs could find the holes and protect the ball well.

In 2015, Shaw tried to do the same with personnel that just couldn’t handle it. You can’t really blame Shaw for offensive line penalties, fumbles and missed field goals (all of which were much bigger problems than Shaw’s play-calling), but you could potentially blame him for not adjusting and continuing to put his players in those same positions to make the same mistakes over and over again. But even that might be a stretch.

The reality is that hindsight is always 20/20, and whenever something goes wrong, Stanford fans love to second-guess and point fingers — often at Shaw. They bashed him for throwing too much in the 2013 loss to Utah (despite the Utes’ strong run defense). And again for running too much in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State (despite Sparty’s ridiculous secondary). And again for punting twice from USC territory in the 2014 loss (even though our extremely unreliable kicker would have been kicking into a strong wind). If something goes wrong, whatever Shaw did, somebody will find a way to complain about it. He really can’t win in that situation.

With that in mind, I don’t think Shaw deserves all of the discontent that Stanford fans direct towards him. Also keep in mind that he runs a clean program and recruits extremely well given Stanford’s constraints. And as a Stanford graduate himself, he absolutely loves his job. I don’t really know what more you can ask for.

 

Notre Dame and Stanford are becoming quite a rivalry, and once again a regular-season finale could very well have postseason ramifications. The Irish have playoff hopes as they prepare to enter fall camp. What needs to happen for the Cardinal to be in the mix for a Pac-12 title and a spot in the CFB Playoff when Notre Dame comes to Palo Alto over Thanksgiving weekend?

Given the recent past, it’s really weird to think that the defense worries me much more than the offense does.

In general, Stanford’s key is to win the trenches. If the O-line reverts to early 2013 form, Hogan can’t be his efficient self. If the D-line doesn’t stuff the run and force pocket pressure, then the high-flying quarterbacks of the Pac-12 will decimate Stanford’s talented yet inexperienced secondary. Stanford’s offense is talented, but Hogan just doesn’t have the firepower to keep up in a shootout.

If the lines hold, though, the sky’s the limit for this Stanford team, and if it can win on the road at USC in Week 3, the secondary has time to develop further before Stanford’s other tough matchups (Arizona, Oregon, UCLA, Cal, Notre Dame — all at home). That USC game is key. If Stanford wins that, then I’ll be convinced that the defense is for real, and Oregon is the only obstacle between Stanford and a Pac-12 North title — and a legitimate shot at the playoff.

Irish A-to-Z: Quenton Nelson

Quenton Nelson
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After a redshirt season, Quenton Nelson is ready to play. Jumping to the head of the line at a crowded (and talented) position, Nelson is taking his five-star pedigree and bringing it to the starting lineup.

Or at least that’s the current plan. But after a spring spent leading the way at left guard, Nelson is in the driver’s seat to start between Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin, a first-year contributor sandwiched between two of college football’s best at their position. A mauling guard who already possesses the strength of an NFL lineman, we’ll see if there are growing pains at a key position along Harry Hiestand’s offensive line.

Let’s take a closer look at the New Jersey native as he prepares for the unofficial beginning of his college career.

 

QUENTON NELSON
6’4.5″, 325 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 56, OG

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Not many offensive lineman projected better, with Nelson earning a five-star ranking and looked at as a Top 30 player in the country. Nelson was an Army All-American and made waves in San Antonio, not to mention on the internet, when he ripped off 26 reps of 225-pounds on the bench press, better than most lineman at the NFL Scouting Combine.

Nelson had offers from Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford and just about anywhere else he wanted. But he committed to Notre Dame early and stuck with his pledge.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Nailed it, though it looks like Nelson is a guard, while classmate Alex Bars—currently set to platoon with Nelson—is a future tackle once Ronnie Stanley departs for the NFL.

This might not be a popular opinion, but consider me among the few people that don’t want to see Nelson on the field in 2014. Using a year of eligibility, especially when the depth chart looks solid with the current projected starting five, would cheat Notre Dame’s staff out of four full seasons of Nelson, likely played at a very elite level.

Save the year and Nelson enters the spring with the inside track in a crowded group fighting for Lombard’s job, and ready to shift outside to tackle when a job opens up.

Of course, a lot of that depends on how well McGlinchey plays. Or Elmer for that matter. Right now, Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin feel like the only true “locks” on the line, with Lombard and Elmer likely right behind. Kelly isn’t going to save a year of playing time if he feels like Nelson can help the Irish win now, even if it’ll mean a few bumps along the road as a freshman learning on the job.

Again, the biggest question is how Hiestand keeps all these linemen competitive, happy and productive. And after just six weeks of summer workouts, it looks like the Irish have another star in the making in Quenton Nelson.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

You couldn’t ask for more in a young offensive lineman. Of course, that just means that Nelson has the physical attributes needed to be a very good player. But a lot of offensive line play is between the ears, and we’ll see how quickly Nelson adapts to the demands of the game, and if he finds himself a little too far out over his skis as a first-year player.

That shouldn’t impact the long-term future of Nelson, who has the size and length of a tackle, but the attitude and strength of a guard. As you look to the future, it’s easy to see 2016’s offensive line featuring Nelson next to Bars on the left side, while McGlinchey and Elmer man the right side. That’s a foursome that all profiled to be left tackles that most college programs would love to have.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

For as good as Nelson can be, he’s still just a redshirt freshman. To that point, I expect a good season, within reason. That means that he’ll likely struggle against elite defenders, with veteran players capable of using Nelson’s aggression against him, and potentially getting the young guard and his body out of position.

Of course, there’s also a good chance that Nelson is as good as advertised. Because he did spend the spring beating out a talented depth chart, and his natural strength and power are absolutely keys to being a great guard in Hiestand’s blocking scheme.

Some guys are born to be offensive linemen. Nelson looks like one of those guys. The chance to be a four-year starter is a rare one. But Nelson seems to be on that trajectory.

No pressure, kid.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB
Sam Mustipher, OL

Irish A-to-Z: Sam Mustipher

Property of Matt Cashore / Irish Illustrated
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This spring, you’d have probably won some money if you had Sam Mustipher emerging as the No. 2 center. But with Matt Hegarty’s departure and some failed experiments before him, it was Mustipher who was backing up Nick Martin and snapping the ball to Everett Golson in a spring game played on Notre Dame’s practice field.

Of course, there were some shaky moments in the Blue and Gold game. But Mustipher’s ascent has to be looked at as a positive move for the second-year player, a promising recruit who seems to have found a home at the center spot.

With Tristen Hoge redshirting and Martin in his final season, a battle is set for this spring. But as we enter the 2015 season, let’s take a closer look at Mustipher.

 

SAM MUSTIPHER
6’2″, 305 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 52, OL

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

An Under Armour All-American with elite offers. Mustipher picked Notre Dame over Alabama, Florida, Florida State, Michigan, Ohio State, Oklahoma and Stanford.

Notre Dame always projected Mustipher as an interior lineman, and while he struggled a bit on the elite recruiting circuit, it’s clear that top programs saw a talented prospect when they looked at Mustipher.

 

PLAYING CAREER

Freshman Season (2014): Did not see action.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

I’d look a lot smarter if the word “center” appeared in the following two paragraphs.

Something quite eventful would need to happen for Mustipher to see the field in 2014. So his eligibility clock likely starts ticking in 2015, with Christian Lombard gone and Nick Martin, Conor Hanratty and Matt Hegarty in their (potential) fifth years. That should make for an interesting battle on the inside, with Steve Elmer likely able to shift back outside if needed and other linemen like Hunter Bivin, Colin McGovern and John Montelus all angling for playing time.

But projecting that far into the future is a fool’s errand, especially when we’ve seen so little of the linemen that will be fighting for a job. But as we continue rolling through this exercise, one thing is certain: There is no lack of talent along the offensive line.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

That Mustipher is the No. 2 center says all you want if you’re taking Harry Hiestand’s offensive line at face value. But we’ll likely see if Mustipher is a placeholder this spring, when Hoge’s redshirt comes off and Martin departs.

There were some shaky snaps by Mustipher in the spring game, missing wide and disrupting some timing throws by Golson. That can’t happen if Mustipher sees the field this fall, and it’s likely been one of the main practice areas for the Maryland native this summer.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

Mustipher might be the most unproven part of Notre Dame’s two-deep, a good sign for the work the Irish have done stocking the depth chart. But if something happens to Martin, we’ll see how ready he is to play, a first-year contributor in the middle of an offensive line that’ll already be starting a first-year player at left guard.

Martin has already battled health issues, a major difference between him and his ironman brother. But Mustipher is likely ready to contribute if he’s the guy tapped to serve as a backup. If not? Expect to see some other bodies shuffle through this fall camp, with candidates including Colin McGovern, Hunter Bivin and John Montelus.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL
Nyles Morgan, LB

Notre Dame ranked 11th in preseason Coaches Poll

Malik Zaire
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Notre Dame opens the season ranked No. 11 in the preseason USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. The Irish, who finished last season 8-5, return the majority of their starting lineup, providing some context for the bullish expectations. Only Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team is ranked higher among teams that finished with five losses in 2014.

Of course, the Coaches Poll no longer plays a role in deciding the national champion, so it’s merits are debatable. And preseason polls don’t do much more than spur on water cooler chatter or internet umbrage, which we’ve seen plenty of this week. Especially from coaches themselves—with many taking their media day speaking opportunities over the last few days to almost universally express the opinion that Notre Dame should be in a conference and all conferences should have a championship game.

(Thus providing the opportunity to remind everybody why coaches don’t usually have an opinion in things like schedules, conference championship games, or anything other than what takes place on the field of play.)

Back to the preseason rankings, the Irish may not have a vehicle for a thirteenth regular season game, but they certainly have a schedule deserving of postseason consideration. If the Irish are capable of running the gamut, they’ll have to defeat No. 10 USC, No. 12 Clemson (in Death Valley), No. 17 Georgia Tech and No. 21 Stanford (in Palo Alto). Of Notre Dame’s other opponents, only Texas received votes, tallying eight points in the preseason poll.

The Coaches Poll voters include Brian Kelly, as well as Georgia Tech head coach Paul Johnson, Clemson’s Dabo Swinney and Ken Niumatalolo from Navy.

Irish A-to-Z: Nyles Morgan

Notre Dame v Arizona State
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Last year, we saw what a talented freshman linebacker in over his head looked like. His name was Nyles Morgan, and the blue-chip recruit personified the second-half defensive collapse that flushed the Irish season down the drain.

Of course, that’s the bad part. The good? Morgan also flashed the skills that made him a tackling machine. So while Irish fans grumbled about missed assignments and struggles grasping the system, the 30,000-foot-view named Morgan a Freshman All-American, and he ended up one of the team’s leading tacklers, even though he played just a fraction of the season.

One calendar year after starting his career in South Bend, the future looks very bright for Morgan. Let’s take a look at what we can expect in his sophomore campaign.

 

NYLES MORGAN
6’1″, 237 lbs.
Sophomore, No. 5, LB

 

RECRUITING PROFILE

Elite. Morgan was an Army All-American and the Irish won a long recruiting battle, a come-from-behind victory considering both his area recruiter (Chuck Martin) and defensive coordinator and position coach (Bob Diaco) left at the home stretch.

But Brian Kelly and Brian VanGorder picked up the slack, and the Irish won a tough victory for one of Chicago’s premier players, beating out Alabama, Florida, Ohio State, Michigan, Ole Miss, USC and many others.

 

PLAYING CAREER

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.

 

WHAT WE SAID LAST YEAR

Nailed it, though the complexities of VanGorder’s system, and the realistic nature of any summer-enrollee freshman fully grasping the defense at the level Joe Schmidt did, made the bad parts ugly.

Morgan couldn’t ask for a better situation to walk into. With a new defensive system in place and a hole in the depth chart, the freshman will see the field from day one and will likely contribute from the middle of the defense come the season-opener against Rice. Getting early snaps can only help him, as Morgan will undoubtedly look like a freshman at times, seeing and doing things for the first time at this level.

It’s hard to remember now, but even Te’o ran around lost as a freshman, with then defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta begrudgingly throwing Te’o to the wolves as the 2009 season rolled on. VanGorder’s system stresses aggression and attacking, something that’ll likely make Morgan’s job easier. But only if he’s able to mentally handle the transition, a challenge that Irish fans should be optimistic about, especially after re-reading Kelly’s Signing Day comments.

Ultimately, Morgan’s going to play. How much and how well remains to be seen. But on the hoof, there’s probably not a more impressive linebacker on the roster than Morgan, who certainly doesn’t look like your average freshman.

For Notre Dame’s defense to succeed, he can’t play like one, either.

 

FUTURE POTENTIAL

 

How many ways can you say sky high? To me, the biggest question is whether or not Morgan stays behind Schmidt this fall, or if Notre Dame’s returning team MVP shifts to Will linebacker to allow Morgan to get on the field.

Morgan will be the future rock of this defense. And putting him next to Schmidt could give him a boost in the same way putting Jaylon Smith next to Schmidt did at the beginning of the season. The only difference? Morgan wouldn’t be playing out of position.

Again, the Te’o comparison is probably a good one. As a sophomore, he’s going to make some mistakes. And in a depth chart that has veteran options (Jarrett Grace and Schmidt) and a returning All-American at Will, it’s going to take some manufacturing to make sure the Irish get the most from Morgan.

But before it’s all said and done, Morgan’s going to be a very, very good one.

 

CRYSTAL BALL

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.

 

THE 2015 IRISH A-to-Z
Josh Adams, RB
Josh Barajas, OLB
Nicky Baratti, S
Alex Bars, OL
Asmar Bilal, OLB
Hunter Bivin, OL
Grant Blankenship, DE
Jonathan Bonner, DE
Miles Boykin, WR
Justin Brent, WR
Greg Bryant, RB
Devin Butler, CB
Jimmy Byrne, OL
Daniel Cage, DL
Amir Carlisle, RB
Nick Coleman, DB
Te’von Coney, LB
Shaun Crawford, DB
Scott Daly, LS
Sheldon Day, DL
Michael Deeb, LB
Micah Dew-Treadway, DL
Steve Elmer, RG
Matthias Farley, DB
Nicco Fertitta, DB
Tarean Folston, RB
Will Fuller, WR
Jarrett Grace, LB
Jalen Guyton, WR
Mark Harrell, OL
Jay Hayes, DL
Mike Heuerman, TE
Kolin Hill, DE
Tristen Hoge, C
Corey Holmes, WR
Chase Hounshell, TE
Torii Hunter, Jr. WR
Alizé Jones, TE
Jarron Jones, DL
DeShone Kizer, QB
Tyler Luatua, TE
Cole Luke, CB
Nick Martin, C
Greer Martini, LB
Jacob Matuska, DL
Mike McGlinchey, OT
Colin McGovern, OL
Peter Mokwuah, DL
John Montelus, OL