In the midst of winter conditioning and seven weeks away from its first spring practice, the Notre Dame football program faces scores of questions after the loss of NFL talent, dozens of long-time contributors, and immeasurable veteran leadership. Irish Illustrated examines the 12 most relevant questions to be answered over rest of the winter, spring, summer, and ultimately into the fall.
QUESTION #1 – NYLES MORGAN
That’s a person, not a question, you say? Well if you’re a Notre Dame fan, especially an ardent member of Irish message boards, you know well that every utterance of the former five-star’s name elicits myriad questions, opinions, and half-truths.
But here’s the only pertinent Morgan-related question: Can the junior start and thrive in the middle of the 2016 defense?
First Impression: The curiosity surrounding the Crete-Monee, Ill.-product peaked in early November 2014 when, due to a season-ending injury suffered by Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt, Morgan first met with the media horde.
The resulting interview featured a well-spoken, clearly dedicated freshman that likewise grew up around the game of football with a linebacker father (Thomas). Additionally, his athletic gifts were not in question.
Said head coach Brian Kelly of Morgan at the time: “I think the one thing I love about Nyles is that he’s so thick-skinned. I mean he is 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 and desire to learn more the next day.
“I just love the way he comes to work each day, and I know coach (Brian) VanGorder feels the same way. He’s going to be a special player.”
But after 7.75 games in which the Irish defense yielded just 19 offensive touchdowns, a Notre Dame defense with Morgan in the middle – one increasingly ravaged by injury as the weeks progressed – surrendered a whopping 25 in the final 5.25. (Though as Schmidt eloquently noted at season’s end: “I wasn’t the only leak in the building.”)
Offensive point totals by opponents were staggering: 41, 43, 31, 49 (Morgan only played half of the contest due to suspension), and 28. That’s 207 in 5.25 games compared to 121 in the 7.75 with Schmidt.
It was clear there was a gulf between Morgan’s knowledge of first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defensive scheme and that of Schmidt’s unique understanding.
But all of the above was understandable and forgiven due to Morgan’s rookie status. However…
THE LOST SEASON?
With Schmidt (and Jarrett Grace) still sidelined due to injuries, the lion’s share of spring 2015 reps belonged to Morgan. The assumption was that the linebacker’s athleticism would provide a weekly complement to Schmidt’s leadership and knowledge of the defense as the two in some manner (with Schmidt clearly starting) would tag-teamed the middle in 2015.
Morgan’s fall was instead limited to kickoff coverage (a team-high 8 tackles in that realm) and mop-up duty at scrimmage. Asked why Morgan couldn’t crack the Irish lineup last season, head coach Brian Kelly offered, “Joe Schmidt is better.”
The sentiments were echoed by VanGorder thereafter and Morgan was relegated No. 2 status – if that.
When Notre Dame needed new second-level starters for its unique triple-option defense, it was classmate Drue Tranquill (vs. Georgia Tech) then Greer Martini (first a Will, then a Mike, then a Sam in his Irish career) that were called upon.
And when a big body was needed to replace Sam linebacker James Onwualu vs. Navy, it wasn’t Morgan that was tabbed, but Grace instead.
And beginning with the opener against Texas and through November, when the Irish defense utilized a goal line package with two linebackers off the bench, it was Grace and Te’Von Coney, not Morgan. And when Jaylon Smith (Will/weak side) was lost in the Fiesta Bowl to injury, it was Coney, then Grace – the latter of which had rarely practiced at the position – selected to take his place.
Aside from the program’s redshirts, no Irish linebacker earned fewer opportunities in 2015 than did Nyles Morgan.
IF NOT NOW…?
At present, Coney is shelved after shoulder surgery while Morgan, Martini and Onwualu enter winter conditioning in good health. So too do redshirt-freshmen backups Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas.
Morgan, from the outside looking in, appears the clear choice to begin spring ball as the starting middle linebacker. Thereafter every tackle, run-fit, and adjustment over the month-long session will be dissected – by both those that matter (the staff) and those that don’t (the rest of us).
Summer progress and, most important, August training camp follows. That’s three summers, three August camps, two spring sessions, two football seasons, four starts and 25 games played for Morgan prior to the season opener of his junior campaign.
At that point it seems implausible Morgan won’t have been adequately prepared to play high level college football, doesn’t it?
“Nyles has the flexibility to play all three positions,” said Kelly previously of Morgan. “And he’s superhero-esque when it comes to being fearless in the face of a new challenge.”
That challenge – and perhaps Morgan’s first true chance – waits.