Notre Dame’s four-star studded two-deep meandered off Oliver Practice Field at Culver Academies at a pace commensurate with two completed hours under the August Indiana sun.
A handful of Irish remained behind, ready to be peppered with questions by the media horde. One among them, the lone five-star prospect during his prep days now in the distant past, struggled to adequately explain his answer to the question he heard more than once – and will again throughout August.
“How did you handle last season, playing so little when you (and the rest of us) expected much more?”
Nyles Morgan struggled to find an answer not because he couldn’t find the words, but because to him, the question didn’t make sense.
“I just stayed hungry. I can’t explain it,” Morgan said. “It’s just something I have, I can’t give up. It was never a question.”
Notre Dame’s highest-ranked prep prospect, then a sophomore, sat and watched as incumbent team MVP Joe Schmidt, a shadow of his 2014 sterling self, fought the good fight with the rest of the squad’s defensive regulars.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. And in the end, Notre Dame’s oh-so-close but now seemingly so far 2015 playoff miss can be attributed, at its core – along with the offense’s red zone woes – to the missteps of the team’s defense.
Morgan is steadfast in his belief that won’t be the case this fall.
“I feel like this year we’re nastier,” he said of third-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s new crew. “I can see it in the D-Line, the safeties. It’s an attitude to dominate. I love it.”
In the meantime, Morgan will finally get his chance to dominate today (Wednesday), the squad’s fifth practice of training camp but the first in which they’re allowed to don full pads.
“I’ve been the one to always have to calm down,” he said of camp acclimatization sessions mandated by the NCAA. “It’s really hard for me (in no pads). Once you put the pads on, we’ll get more physical, the offense can stop holding. They want to hold and grab my jersey,” he added half-jokingly. “It’s gonna be fun.”
THE ACTUAL CAPTAIN
At first blush, seniors James Onwualu, Isaac Rochell, and Cole Luke rank 1-2-3 among the squad’s defensive combatants to earn the honor of team captaincy this fall. (Offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey is a lock to earn that status. Others from both sides of the ball can be argued thereafter.)
But while Onwualu, McGlinchey, et al will bring leadership behind the scenes, on the sidelines, and in the locker room, Notre Dame’s middle linebacker must bring the same on every snap – before and during.
“I talk to the line, to the safeties, to the sidelines,” said Morgan. “I’m talking all the time, so it makes sense for me to be vocal (in practice) as well.”
Morgan shot down the notion that too much thinking will lead to paralysis by analysis as the defense’s quarterback.
“No. I’m always thinking. I think before the snap, I see it, react, make a call, and go. I can talk on the go. That’s the big change. Thinking and reacting quickly to what we see.”
Asked what he improved most since last season, Morgan’s answer was two-fold. “Obviously the mental game, but also striking linemen.”
The latter is crucial, because for all of the aforementioned Schmidt’s knowledge of the scheme, he was nonetheless unable to perform the physical tasks asked of him last fall. (Schmidt endured off-season ankle surgery, broke his thumb in training camp, and played the bulk of the season with a shoulder separation.)
Through 8.5 games as team MVP in 2014, Schmidt accrued an impressive 19.5 *Stuffs (Jaylon Smith finished with 19 on the 2014 season) while adding 10.5 Big Plays (sacks, FF, FR, PD, INT, QB Hurries) despite missing all of November plus the Music City Bowl.
Last season, with Morgan watching nearly every competitive snap from scrimmage, Schmidt struggled to make a similar impact at or behind enemy lines, registering 17 Stuffs over the 13-game season while struggling to compete in space.
(*Stuffs are tackles for loss or no gain, plus those that limit ball carriers to gains of 1 or 2 yards not resulting in a first down.)
Morgan’s proving ground remains, but his purported strengths are enticing:
“Joe definitely wasn’t the best athlete in coverage,” said linebackers coach Mike Elston. “It was more of a product of his intelligence. He was going to be in the right spot. The thing with Joe was, athletically, he struggled at times in space to make plays, and everybody saw it. But the tradeoff was he was going to be in the right spot and he was going to get other guys around him in the right spot.
“Nyles is going to be a really good cover linebacker, so I don’t see Nyles leaving the field on third down unless a guy like James (Onwualu) develops into that role. Nyles is a good penetrating rusher, too, where Joe wasn’t. Joe initially had a knack but Nyles will have a knack for pass rush penetration and aggressiveness. When you bring him (the offensive line) is going to feel something. So you have that threat going on third down, too.”
Never one to sugarcoat the past, Elston admitted that Morgan would have benefitted from more playing time last season, noting, “I think his growth would have been greater had he played more.”
He’s about to get his chance.