Morgan now the man in the middle for the Irish

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From the moment Nyles Morgan signed his letter-of-intent with Notre Dame, most saw him as the team’s future at middle linebacker. An early pick by most experts to be one of the first freshmen to play, Morgan’s ascent into the starting lineup is one we all saw coming, but yet surprised us just the same.

That’s a credit to the play of senior Joe Schmidt. After emerging this spring with his adjustment into the center of Brian VanGorder’s defense, Schmidt’s standout season deserved all the acclaim he received, regardless of the tremendous backstory that brought him to South Bend.

But this is college football. And in a program like Notre Dame’s, a devastating injury is a tremendous opportunity for someone else. And just like last season, when all-everything recruit Jaylon Smith began his ascent after Danny Spond’s migraines forced him to retire from the game, Morgan walks into the spotlight earlier than expected, but on schedule just the same.

What Notre Dame will get out of the freshman linebacker remains to be seen. Evaluating anybody’s play based on a game against Ken Niumatalolo’s triple-option attack is difficult. But even then, we saw a linebacker who showed flashes of the blue-chip linebacker Notre Dame’s coaching staff fought uphill for nearly two years to sign.

Morgan’s four tackles — including a de-cleater in the backfield against Keenan Reynolds — were everything we expected from a linebacker who came in with acclaim rivaling Manti Te’o. And it’s a comparison he certainly didn’t shy away from, picking No. 5 to wear from the start of his Notre Dame career.

For the finished product Te’o was when he left, we tend to forget that he was once, just like Morgan, a young linebacker mostly running wild. As a freshman, unleashed after half a season to live through his growing pains. As a sophomore, learning a new system and responsibilities. A maturing junior year prepared him for a historic senior season. Te’o blew his share of responsibilities playing against Navy. He also made plays, plenty of plays, even if they weren’t necessarily his to make.

But dwelling on last week — or any linebacker’s performance against Navy — certainly won’t help the Irish to prepare for Arizona State. In a test that’ll serve as a bedrock game for Notre Dame’s playoff resume, it’ll be up to Morgan to anchor the interior of the Irish defense physically, and mentally stay above water against one of college football’s brightest young minds, 32-year-old offensive coordinator Mike Norvell.

His teammates are saying all the right things. Jaylon Smith thinks he’ll be ready. Sheldon Day sees his growth. He’s been coached for this opportunity, VanGorder and Brian Kelly cracking the whip, knowing this day could come at any moment this season, a depth chart necessity more so than a star emerging.

As we’ve seen with this young defense, VanGorder has understood how to get the best out of young players. A converted wide receiver has emerged as a viable part of the starting lineup. Freshmen, mixed and matched along the defensive line. All easier tasks than finding a way to cover up the rough edges of a middle linebacker.

But expect VanGorder to do it anyway. With Smith next to him capable of serving as an eraser, Morgan can be the blunt instrument sent screaming into action. Where as Schmidt served as a technician, Morgan will be the opposite. Expect to see No. 5 crashing through the offensive line, sent after quarterback Taylor Kelly, not matched up in coverage with running back D.J. Foster.

“I think in certain instances there’s some things that you would want to do that you know Joe Schmidt can do, and then there’s some uncertainty as to what Nyles can do,” Kelly explained. “Having said that, it opens up a whole new path to some things that we couldn’t do with Joe that we’re pretty excited that we can do with Nyles.

“There’s some things that we know that we can’t do with Nyles that Joe could do, but I know Coach VanGorder is pretty excited about some of the things that he couldn’t do with Joe that he can do with Nyles this week.”

With Schmidt’s time at Notre Dame done for 2014, the door opens for Morgan’s career to begin. With “Next Man In” the life blood of a program Kelly’s rebuilt brick by brick for five seasons, expect to see the young linebacker crashing through the front door on Saturday afternoon.