One of the largest X-factors heading into 2016 is linebacker Nyles Morgan. Last spotted racking up tackles (and too often, missing assignments) as a true freshman, Morgan spent his sophomore season stuck behind Joe Schmidt, unable to carve out even the smallest niche in Brian VanGorder’s defense.
But entering 2016, Morgan stands front and center amidst the rebuilding efforts. And if you believe the Irish have the ability to once again get themselves in the middle of the College Football Playoff conversation—the only postseason goal Notre Dame will allow itself—then Morgan’s ability to step in and perform at a high level is critical to that objective.
With Brian VanGorder’s defense under the microscope, Morgan’s ability to fully digest a scheme and system many fear is too complex is one of spring’s major questions. But in his first public comments to the local media this spring, Morgan sounded every bit like the confident veteran, a reassuring development at a time when the defense needs him.
“I feel like my knowledge of the game has grown so much. There’s so much I know now that I wish I knew then,” Morgan said last Friday. “I finally got all that down, got all that together. It all just clicked…I’m telling guys where to be, things like that. I can line guys up. The offense moves, I can check it.
With just four healthy scholarship linebackers available this spring, Morgan’s game was going to get tested more in these 15 practices than it did all last season. And after two full years in the program, it’s allowed him to balance the trial by fire freshman season with the knowledge base that’s needed to succeed.
“Being the Mike linebacker, you need to be the sharpest one out there. If not, the game’s going to get ugly,” Morgan said.
The difficulties in meetings have subsided. The mental challenges no longer neutralize a natural skill-set that nobody has ever doubted. And that confidence has come through on the field this spring, apparent to any coach that watches him.
“Nyles is having a really good spring. I’m very excited about his growth from the offseason from where he was a year ago,” linebackers coach Mike Elston said. “His communication is much improved. He’s playing very physical. His leadership is much improved. It’s definitely a great improvement and I’m excited about it.”
So is his defensive coordinator. With the identity of last season’s defense essentially gone, Morgan has the chance to put his stamp on the unit.
“This is his time,” VanGorder said. “I think he’s a much different middle linebacker right now.”
Those differences are things this staff is hoping Morgan embraces—especially as the Irish try to move on from Schmidt as the nerve center of the unit.
“Joe Schmidt was a smart player, he was a heady player, but he wasn’t the most physically gifted player that we had. Nyles Morgan is a tough, physical football player,” Brian Kelly said Friday. “What we’ve asked him to do is be himself. You’re not Joe Schmidt… Be who you are. We want that personality to come out and if that does, [he’ll] bring others around and that toughness will start to show itself.”
Morgan seems to be running with that challenge, a changed linebacker reflective of his changed status on the depth chart.
“It’s different when you’re behind somebody and you’re trying to live up to that standard,” Elston said. “Now you’re out there setting the standard. He’s got confidence now because he’s the first dog running out there. He’s playing with an aggressive nature and communicating really well. What it is for him that triggered it, I’m not sure, but he’s got more confidence.”
Carrying that confidence onto the field will be critical in 2016. While Greer Martini has the ability to play on the inside and first-time participants like Josh Barajas are cross-training there as well, the job is Morgan’s to lose.
But two years after earning Freshman All-American honors while he was learning on the fly, the bar is set much higher than just winning the job. For the Irish defense to take the necessary step forward, Morgan needs to lead it.
So far, so good.