Twice DeShone Kizer spotted a free tight end over the middle during Notre Dame’s opening spring practice on Wednesday morning. And twice Nyles Morgan tomahawked the ball out, flashing an athleticism that’s always made him a theoretical upgrade to Joe Schmidt at middle linebacker.
But it’s the practical parts that have always been the issue. They can’t be now.
“This is his time,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “He knows it. He's got the athletic ability.”
Even without consensus All-American Jaylon Smith, the athleticism question shouldn’t be one this spring at linebacker with Morgan, James Onwualu, Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal available. That’s a short bench with Greer Martini and Te’Von Coney sidelined by off-season shoulder surgeries, but it’s also evidence of how well the Irish have recruited quality if not quantity.
Morgan will start in the middle at Sam linebacker with Bilal taking over at Will, where Smith led Notre Dame’s defense. Onwualu remains at Sam on the perimeter with Barajas owning potential to play both inside spots. The same goes for Coney when he returns in fall camp while Martini could play all three positions.
“I think we’ll be fine,” Kelly said. “It’s the 11-on-11 work where you’re a little thin, but when we’re talking about drill work, when we’re talking about 7-on-7, when we’re talking about things like that, we’ll be cross-training those linebackers, and we’ll be just fine.”
Bilal ranks among spring’s most interesting players after winning Scout Team Player of the Year on defense last fall. Kelly said the sophomore could be a solution to back up Onwualu outside, but like Smith’s transition from freshman to sophomore, the staff wants to see the former four-star prospect in tight spaces.
“He’s got all the athletic tools,” Kelly said. “We’re gonna force feed him inside-out and see what he can handle because we know we can line him up outside and he’s athletic enough to give us what we need in the fall. We’re gonna see what he can do inside.”
The departures of Schmidt and Smith removed two captains from the roster, leaving a leadership void across the defense Onwualu must at least partially fill. A likely captain, the senior has been working to make sure Bilal and Barajas understand what it takes. Neither has played a snap in their careers and now one might start in a rebuilt defense.
“You get into spring, you’re making some mistakes and you get sick of getting yelled at,” Onwualu said. “That’s when you start realizing, ‘All right, let me get in the film room, let’s lock this down.’
“It’s a little easier to sit back and let things happen when you’re just in the weight room and there’s not much pressure. Once you get on the field and you start seeing the grade sheets, the minus, minus, minus, that’s when you’re ready to get going.
“They’re both very smart kids and they both want to be great.”
The same goes for Morgan, who Kelly has backed in press conferences but not in games. Morgan played in all 13 games last season, but his 17 tackles were limited mainly to special teams. Nearly half his stops on the season came in the blowout of UMass. Morgan never even got a hold on part-time work.
Forget passing Schmidt in the base defense, Morgan didn’t sniff goal line packages either. Jarrett Grace, Martini and Coney were all preferred. Now through graduation and injury all four of those hurdles are gone.
“I think really for Nyles, for him, I think it's going to be a great spring,” Kelly said. “He's got nobody in front of him, and I think that's going to help him dramatically. There's no Joe Schmidt in front of him … it's going to help Nyles not to have Joe Schmidt here because now he can just go and play and not have a wall in front of him.”
Ready or not, that’s the reality facing Notre Dame’s linebackers this spring.