Unlike Morgan's actual first foe, Arizona State on Nov. 8 in Sun Devils Stadium, the Tigers, Notre Dame's Music City Bowl foe on Dec. 30, aren't likely to feature deception in an effort to get by the inexperienced Irish inside 'backer or Notre Dame's youth-filled defense.
They don't need to.
"They're not trying to trick you," said Morgan of the Tigers power rushing attack. "You know where the ball is going. You have to stop it."
Stopping the ball is something Morgan has done with aplomb, at least when he arrives at it: 31 tackles in his last 2.5 games -- a whopping 11 in the second half vs. USC alone.
But the Irish rush defense has been gashed since it lost its leader and most valuable player, Joe Schmidt on Nov. 1., and Morgan's missed run fits have played a part in Notre Dame's sudden sieve once plugged by Schmidt and then-healthy starters up front Jarron Jones and Sheldon Day.
Gashed. Battered. But not scarred. Not the resilient, focused Morgan.
“I came from a high school system that was really like 'see ball, get ball,' said the former Scout.com five-star from Illinois' Crete-Monee High School. "This is an NFL system. I think I skipped a few steps there. The curve has been very steep."
The results are well-publicized. Notre Dame's defense devolved from the early-season darling of a hope-filled fan base to national laughingstock as November progressed. Morgan wasn't the only newbie forced to adjust (14 different Irish defenders made their starting debuts this fall including eight freshmen), but he doubtless had the hardest job -- emergency quarterback/middle linebacker of a remarkably complex defense.
“On a scale of one to 10, it was like a 30,” Morgan said of his adjustment and myriad responsibilities. "I was like, ‘I didn’t even know that existed.’ Like, ‘Is that real?’”
Oh it's real. Yards, points, and losses piled up. So too did the detractors, though the latter meant little to Morgan.
“The one thing I love about Nyles is that he is so thick-skinned,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “He’s a bull. He just keeps coming at you and wants to learn every day. It doesn’t matter if he made 53 mistakes the week before, he comes back with such an incredible want-to and desire to learn more the next day. I just love the way he comes to work every day.”
Morgan's daily workload includes a familiar refrain: "It’s not pretty, it’s not pretty,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's favorite phrase to describe the freshman's play. "That and, 'You just can't do it,' or 'young player,'" said Morgan, adding to his mentor's daily critique, smiling as he recalled a rookie's film room life.
Built to LastThe thick-skin of which Kelly speaks was forged for Morgan by his father, Thomas, a fellow linebacker at the college level (Western Illinois).
"I always want to learn to get better and that goes back to my father," said Morgan. "It's something he preached to me since I was a kid."
“He’s been everything. He texts me almost every day…he’s developed me into the person I am today as far as work ethic, resilience, intelligence, everything. I credit my father a lot.”
Morgan's father tried to warn his talented, precocious son that this new level of football was no joke. It had always been easy for his son. It was about to be anything but.
“He knew and I tried not to listen,” Morgan admitted with a smile. “I’m like, ‘I got it dad,’ and he’s like, ‘Okay, you got it. You sure you got it?’
“He knew and he always stayed by my side, even when things got rough. The stuff is not easy. I had some rough periods. But he was always there.”
Schmidt is there for Morgan now, offering, as the freshman put it, similar critiques as VanGorder, albeit without the cursing.
The two will doubtless play in tandem next fall, joined by perhaps the best of the bunch, junior-to-be Jaylon Smith.
Kelly offered last week that Morgan could play anywhere, which should make for an interesting spring at the all-important linebacker level.
"I prefer Mike," said Morgan when pressed for his position of choice. "I like being in the middle of everything so I can go left or right.
"But if (Kelly) says so, I guess I can (play anywhere)."
Wherever he ends up, it promises to be easier the his daunting task to date.