Jarrett Grace wanted to be a good teammate, which meant running a predawn shuttle service for Nyles Morgan and Te’Von Coney during winter workouts. Most mornings that meant Morgan could skip the 6 a.m. walk to the Gug. Some mornings that meant Grace couldn’t wait for the freshman to wake up.
Grace wanted an extra half-hour in the football facility to warm up, a necessity after multiple surgeries and that gruesome leg injury of two years ago. Morgan, on the other hand, wanted the extra sleep.
“I’m calling them, where you guys at?” Grace said. “They’re still asleep.
“Fine, you don’t want a ride then, whatever. It wasn’t all love always. I walked when I was a freshman, you’re gonna have to endure a few cold mornings just to learn.”
After Morgan’s trial by fire, shoved into the lineup following Joe Schmidt’s broken leg against Navy, this was the former U.S. Army All-American’s trial by ice. It may have also been the only lift Morgan declined since enrolling last summer with his game in need of renovations both essential and rushed.
Schmidt, Grace, Jaylon Smith and defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder collaborated to push Morgan forward in the past few months at warp speed. Now closing out his first spring practice, Morgan has embraced the shove, even coming from players he wants to displace in the lineup.
“I would say now it’s making more sense to me, the philosophy (VanGorder) has,” Morgan said. “If you’d ask me (a year ago), I would have said (I was ready). But deep down I knew there were a lot of things that I had to learn as far as assignments, technique, things like that.
“I feel like I’m maybe the linebacker of the future.”
For a player devouring first-team spring reps, that creates an odd dynamic. Morgan doesn’t know VanGorder’s NFL defense as well as Schmidt or Grace. But he’s a superior athlete to both, true even if those seniors hadn’t suffered season-ending injuries.
Grace opened spring medically cleared but has been stuck on the second team. Schmidt returned to 7-on-7 on Monday, but only got a handful of reps. That means Morgan is Notre Dame’s only fully fit middle linebacker, even if he’s still its most green after four starts and three double-digit tackle games.
And he knows it.
So does VanGorder, who said Morgan is a full year from grasping his scheme.
“That third year is kind of a magical year where it all kind of fits together,” VanGorder said. “Having said that, he’s done a great job. I’m really proud of him and what he’s done. He’s really come a long way as a football player. That’s because it’s important to him and he works at it.”
Even if Morgan’s development has been more public than expected, the Chicagoland product believes it will pave his path beyond Notre Dame. The fronts, the shifts and the checks should uniquely empower Morgan at the chalkboard when NFL teams want to interview him for jobs beyond South Bend.
“There’s no days where you can let up,” Morgan said. “It’s not like I’ve taken the top, it’s a work in progress.”
Despite the fact Morgan has to make all the calls within Notre Dame’s defense, he benefits from having Smith beside him, Grace behind him and Schmidt backing him in the film room. All three know what a unique athlete the Irish have, which makes cramming VanGorder’s system essential.
That means reading the No. 3 receiver, watching the running back, checking for play action and anticipating a boot by the quarterback all within a half-second. And then making those reads every 10 seconds against a hurry-up offense.
“If that was me, I don’t know if I could have held up like him,” Grace said. “I’ve seen him transform in his time here. He can run. He can flat out run. That’s something he’s learning about too. Man, I can run these guys down, so be confident in that. I envy those young legs.”
In other words, don’t feel bad for making Morgan walk to winter workouts.
The linebacker’s career was always going to remain a full spring forward anyway.