It didn’t start with a tackle or a sack. It started with a meeting.
Summoned to sit with the man who rooted him to the bench last season, Nyles Morgan arrived at the office of Brian VanGorder last March wondering what the defensive coordinator would say next. And at what volume.
Spring practice would begin in barely a week and Joe Schmidt was gone for good. Theoretically, that meant Morgan could win the starting middle linebacker job. VanGorder got practical instead, telling Morgan the job was his. The junior didn’t need to take a rep during spring to make the first-team. He might not stay there, but it would be where he’d start.
“It’s like someone gives you the keys to a new mansion,” Morgan said. “All this? This is my bathroom? Wow. This is how it feels, though.”
VanGorder didn’t evict Morgan during spring practice. Now he’s let the junior linebacker decorate during training camp. Not only has VanGorder invested fully in Morgan, he’s let a player who couldn’t get on the field in any meaningful role last season influence how the defense is run. When the coordinator wants a take on defensive linemen or safeties, he asks Morgan for input.
VanGorder doesn’t yell at Morgan anymore, he converses with him. VanGorder may still always be right, but Morgan no longer begins those talks from subterranean levels of wrong.
“I respect him greatly as a player,” VanGorder said. “He’s tough and he’s persevered. He’s worked hard at it. He’s done an admirable job relative to managing it all.
“But I’ve got to see him as a starter. That’s why I can’t wait ’til the Texas game. Let’s see what you can do, Nyles. Let’s see what it looks like for 70 plays in a big game. He’s on the right road right now. He’s worked hard.”
That moment in Austin on Sept. 4 won’t be Morgan’s first start, it will just feel that way after his horror show freshman season when he replaced an injured Schmidt in November. The defense collapsed in historic rubble as the Irish allowed 43.4 points per game that month with Schmidt on crutches after a broken ankle suffered against Navy.
So what happens in two weeks at Texas, probably against a freshman quarterback, will feel more like the start of Morgan’s career than a do-over.
“We have guys who really understand what’s going on, what they’re doing,” Morgan said. “That worry is gone, you can just play for yourself. You don’t have to worry about a safety not knowing what he’s doing or a linebacker not knowing what he’s doing because they get it. When that happens everybody is playing fast. It works out.”
At least that’s the plan for a defense that lost its three best players, its top pass rusher and four captains. Morgan may offer no good experience, but he can upgrade the athleticism of the position post-Schmidt. Going from a former walk-on to a former five-star prospect is a boost, one Notre Dame’s offense has noticed.
Schmidt might have known where you were going, but Morgan can beat you to your spot.
“The difference is the downhill speed,” said tight end Nic Weishar. “When you’re running an outside play and you see the middle linebacker, with Joe you knew where he was going to be. Nyles is a little quicker. You have to change your angles. That’s what we’ve had a little bit of trouble with so far.”
Linebackers coach Mike Elston said Morgan could end up blitzing just as much as Schmidt last year but should be more effective at getting home when he does.
The physical power of Morgan flashed Wednesday when he launched running back Tarean Folston out of bounds in a scrimmage drill. It was supposed to be a non-tackle period. Morgan turned Folston into a projectile.
“Probably a good trait for a middle linebacker,” said head coach Brian Kelly. “Wouldn't want it the other way.”
Good thing. There isn’t another way at middle linebacker.
It’s all Morgan now. Actually, it’s been that way since March. Soon everybody else will see why VanGorder gave this junior the keys to his defense.