Nyles Morgan the man? Just call him the Mike

Physicality if Morgan’s calling card, and now that he believes he has a solid working knowledge of the system, his natural physical tools should shine through.

The questions come in a steady stream, from one voice to another, perhaps phrased a bit differently from the previous inquiry, but all leading back to the same basic premise.

So you finally understand the defense, what your role is, how to get yourself and your teammates lined up, and how to be where you need to be when you need to be there?

“I finally got all that down. I got it all together,” said junior-to-be Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame’s newly-christened Mike linebacker.

“It all just clicked. I’m telling guys where to be, lining guys up, things like that. If the offense moves, I can check this.”

Maybe now the two-year soap opera of the physically-gifted understudy who couldn’t get on the field ahead of the former walk-on can come to a quiet close.

Joe Schmidt, he of the God-given football instincts, was nearly vilified at times for knowing the defense too well, which positioned him as a two-year roadblock for the four-star prospect out of Crete, Ill.

Now Schmidt’s gone and the job -- hands-down, absolutely, positively (at least this spring) -- belongs to the 6-foot-1, 245-pound Morgan.

“What we’ve asked (Morgan) to do is be himself,” said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. “Now that it’s not an issue of getting us lined up, be who you are, and he’s a physical, tough player.

“We want that personality to come out. If it does, he’ll bring others around him and that toughness will start to show itself.”

All that size and all that toughness and all that physicality doesn’t bring much to a defense if it’s arriving at the wrong spot on the field, and that, in a nutshell, is what kept Schmidt on the field and Morgan relegated to special teams duty.

“Joe was just so smart,” Morgan said. “I came in and he picked it up like this. Me coming in as a freshman from high school…I had been playing in a simpler defense. It was a little harder for me. I was kind of playing catch-up the whole time.”

Morgan eventually cracked the lineup for most of the second half of his rookie season in ’14 when Schmidt went down with a season-ending ankle injury. Morgan made some plays along the way, but he also ran around the football field aimlessly at times, too.

In the meantime, Morgan hung on every word offered by Schmidt and Jaylon Smith as they adapted to Brian VanGorder’s scheme.

“I tried to absorb anything and everything they said,” Morgan said. “We’d be in meeting rooms, and I’d be like, ‘Joe, what does this mean? Joe, what does that mean?’ And then it would be, ‘Jay!, Jay!’

“I tried to learn from them as much as possible because I knew everything they said was beneficial.”

Had Bob Diaco remained defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, Morgan likely would have been better positioned to beat out Schmidt. Diaco’s philosophy was more fundamental-based whereas VanGorder’s is about scheme.

But Diaco took the head-coaching position at Connecticut, and along came VanGorder with his NFL-level defensive complexity.

“Being the Mike linebacker, you have to be the sharpest one out there,” Morgan said. “If you’re not, things can get ugly.”

If there’s anyone that Morgan leans on now, with Schmidt and Smith out the door, it’s outside (Sam) linebacker James Onwualu, a senior-to-be this fall with an excellent opportunity to be one of Notre Dame’s captains in ’16.

“James has a very good understanding of the schematics,” Morgan said. “I love playing with James because I know that if anything, James is going to know what to do and will be in the right spot at the right time every time.”

Now it’s guys like Will linebacker Asmar Bilal and Mike linebacker Josh Barajas, both of whom preserved a year of eligibility as freshmen in ’15, who are turning to Morgan for the answers.

“You have to show the young guys what to do and what to expect next year,” Morgan said. “If you don’t, I feel like things might fall apart. I have to set the tone because this is what VanGorder wants.

“Now that I’m in a position where I have that confidence because I know my technique and my assignments, I can keep going forward, and that means helping the younger linebackers.”

It’s not that Morgan didn’t believe VanGorder. But now there’s some perspective -- a baseline to follow -- that makes the days of “drinking through a fire hose” a fading memory.

“(VanGorder) knows what works and what doesn’t work, so I’m inclined to trust him,” Morgan said. “Now I know what to do and what to expect and how this might work.

“Gaining that experience, you learn so much about yourself. Once you get the whys, it makes you that much more confident.”

It should be noted that two Irish linebackers – Greer Martini and Te’von Coney – are sidelined this spring following injuries. Martini, once fully healthy, could challenge Morgan for the starting job in the fall.

But for now, Morgan has tunnel vision on the task at hand.

“No pressure. You can’t think of it as pressure,” Morgan said. “I think of it like every chance I get, I embrace it. I’m just embracing my role now.

“I don’t like the whole arrogant look. I’m not that guy. As far as being the man, if that means being the middle linebacker and the guy running the defense and calling the shots, then I guess that’s what I’m doing now.”

For Kelly, the trepidation with Morgan on the field has been replaced by hopeful anticipation.

“He’s a physical player, so bringing that physicality to every practice and that physical toughness to our defense is important,” Kelly said.

“Joe Schmidt was a smart player, a heady player, but he wasn’t the most physically gifted player we had. Nyles Morgan is a tough, physical football player.”

And finally, “the man” at Mike.

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