Notre Dame needed a rally over the final two-and-a-half months of the 2014 recruiting campaign to finish strong as seven verbal commitments of the 23-man class came after the conclusion of the regular season.
And while defensive lineman Daniel Cage and tight end Tyler Luatua would be two of the more significant additions during that time, the class wouldn’t have had a marquee figure down the stretch run were in not for the five-star fish the Irish caught within a week after Notre Dame’s Pinstripe Bowl victory over Rutgers.
Linebacker Nyles Morgan from Crete, Ill., was that significant addition to the class as defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder tried to add key pieces to his 2014 defense and beyond. Notre Dame beat out Mississippi and Vanderbilt to land the Scout’s No. 34-ranked player in the country and the first-team USA Today all-USA prep All-American.
Morgan had difficulty getting on the field at linebacker during the first half of his freshman season as Joe Schmidt – the air and ground traffic controller of the defense – monopolized the playing time at Mike linebacker before a broken/dislocated left ankle in the eighth game ended his season.
Morgan would start the next three games – versus Arizona State, Northwestern and Louisville – making a career-high 11 tackles in the USC game, and then starting against LSU in the Music City Bowl. He missed the first half of the game against the Trojans when he was ejected in the second half of the Louisville game for targeting.
Morgan emerges as a starter as Jaylon Smith shifts to the outside. It’s conceivable that Morgan could beat out Joe Schmidt and Jarrett Grace at Mike linebacker if neither can achieve full health after significant injuries. A more likely scenario for Morgan’s inclusion in the starting lineup as a sophomore would be the move of Smith back to his original position – Sam linebacker -- and Morgan teaming up with Schmidt and Grace for an inside linebacker rotation with Schmidt cross-training at Mike and Will, and Grace returning to his Mike spot.
VanGorder stays with Jaylon Smith at Will, which prompts Morgan to serve as a situational backup to Schmidt and Grace as the latter two use their final years of eligibility. Whether Morgan starts full-time in ’15 or not, he’ll be an every-game starter in 2016-17.
True freshman inside linebacker starters at Notre Dame are rare. Even recent Hall of Fame nominee Bob Crable (1978-81) could not find a niche as a true freshman. Most true freshman inside linebackers over the past 25 years who made an impact in his career preserved a year of eligibility as a rookie.
Prior to 2014 with Morgan, the last true freshman to start for the Irish at inside linebacker was Manti Te’o, like Morgan, a five-star recruit. After a slow start, Te’o started 10 games for the Irish in 2009, finishing with 63 tackles, a sack and five-and-a-half tackles for loss. Morgan started four of the last five games as a freshman with 47 tackles, half-a-sack, and 3.5 tackles for loss. Te’o – like Morgan – struggled to find his run fits during some of those early starting assignments, although not to the degree Morgan did.
Had it not been for Schmidt’s season-ending injury, Morgan’s playing time likely wouldn’t have changed much from the spot duty he had through the first seven-and-a-half games of his rookie season, mostly in special teams.
But Morgan ultimately did play, and after struggling mightily against Arizona State – and at various points the rest of the season – he’s a much better football player for having played an extensive role over the last five-and-a-half games of the season. Still, a healthy Schmidt and/or Grace will make it difficult for Morgan to retain his starting spot in ’15.
The second half of the USC game when he made six solo stops and five assists in just 30 minutes of action. To be sure, the game already had been decided, but Morgan took advantage of the Trojans’ conservative second-half game plan, helping the Irish hold them to zero points over the final 21:02.
“If that was me, I don’t know if I could have held up like him. 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.”
-- Senior LB Jarrett Grace on Morgan