“I see that he’s got a chance for greatness. He’s our toughest kid. Our most gritty player. He knows our defense as well as anybody.”
Brian Kelly’s effusive praise last week of his new starting middle linebacker offers hope for Notre Dame fans concerned about an Irish defense bereft of the best player at each level of Brian VanGorder’s unit from 2015.
Trailing only sophomore tight end Alizé’ Jones, Morgan is the second-highest ranked prep prospect (No. 34 overall per Scout.com) on the current Irish roster, and after two seasons as Joe Schmidt’s understudy, his time has come as the anchor and on field captain of VanGorder’s defense.
Irish Illustrated’s A-to-Z preview of Notre Dame’s roster continues with Morgan, a potential breakout player for 2016.
Demetrius Dubose? Courtney Watson? That’s probably what Notre Dame’s defense needs from Morgan in 2016 to compete for a playoff berth.
Realistically, can Morgan play his junior season at a statistical level similar to predecessor Joe Schmidt circa 2014? Through eight games prior to a season-ending injury, Schmidt had racked up 19.5 stuffs (that’s more than Jaylon Smith had at the time) to go with an aggregate 7.5 big plays (interceptions, forced fumbles, passes defended, etc.) while adding eight tackles per game.
The coaching staff expects Morgan to make an impact as a pass defender in space (he showed well in this regard in media practice viewings) AND at times as a blitzer stressing the pocket. Both would be a major upgrade at the position over the injured version of Schmidt last fall.
Regardless, Morgan needs to conclude 2016 as one of Notre Dame’s top 10 players. Period.
Simply put: if Morgan’s 2016 season is not the polar opposite of his 2014 debut under fire. That lost November was a month replete with missed run fits, personal foul penalties, and some of the worst (team) defense seen since the Clark/Darden combo of 1995.
The above is highly unlikely, but a middle linebacker is only as good as his protection, i.e., the “big uglies” asked to occupy blockers in front of him. Morgan’s performance in part this fall will be determined by the efforts of Jarron Jones, Daniel Cage, Jerry Tillery, and Elijah Taylor – Notre Dame’s projected interior D-Line quartet.
As they go, so too will the consistency of the Mike linebacker.
What are the parameters, a late-blooming linebacker or a five-star with delayed gratification?
A second team USA Today All-American, Corey Mays is the program’s recent standard as a late-bloomer at the position, but he made his impact as a fifth-year senior, that’s much older than Morgan the true junior. Morgan’s fellow Chicagoland product Brian Hamilton comes to mind – he blossomed as a senior for the 1993 Irish defense after entering the collegiate ranks as a first team USA Today All-American four years prior.
As for a highly touted Chicago linebacker prospect that blossomed as a true junior, Morgan would do well to emulate the career path of Mike Goolsby who, after two seasons of special teams action, blossomed for the 2002 Irish defense that dominated 11 of 13 games they played for first-year defensive coordinator Kent Baer.
He finished with 75 tackles including a whopping 13 for loss (a total that matches Manti Te’o’s career-best).
DEVELOPMENT VS. RECRUITING RANKING
As a five-star prospect and the 34th-ranked overall player in the class of 2014, Morgan is clearly behind the developmental curve. How he was unable to contribute to the 2015 defense – in any capacity – remains a mystery to most.
Regardless, Morgan is a potential breakout star in the college game over the next two football seasons. His proving ground awaits.
MORGAN AT HIS BEST
Morgan was named to the Football Writer’s Association Freshman All-America squad for his November 2014 efforts, though that honor was clearly based on numbers (43 tackles in 4.5 games) not his real world performance.
His best statistical effort came in the overtime loss to Northwestern when five of Morgan’s 10 tackles resulted in Stuffs go along with a pass defensed.
The Irish defense however yielded a comical 547 yards of total offense to the Wildcats – a Northwestern team that had been limited to a combined 444 yards in its TWO games prior – so draw your own conclusions regarding the Mike ‘backer’s actual level of play that lost afternoon in South Bend.
Of note: Morgan recorded 10 tackles in the second half alone at USC two weeks later when most of the Irish defense and coaching staff had long since surrendered in a 49-14 defeat.
QUOTE TO NOTE
“Nyles, as I’ve always said in his first two years, diligent in learning our system. He’s got a lot on his plate as the Mike linebacker. He’s impressive. He’s impressive how he’s persevered, how he’s showed toughness through some hard times. This is his time. He’s done a really good job. He’s much different middle linebacker relative to the other players’ trust. His communication has been solid. He’s been very good so far.” – Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder