Nyles Morgan always considered himself to be a leader. His naming as one of the multiple Irish captains on the 2017 team validated it.
True validation, however, comes on the football field, and with a clean slate and a new defensive direction, Morgan – Notre Dame’s leading tackler (94) and sack man (4) in 2016 – is at the front of the pack in Mike Elko’s defense, due largely to an off-season makeover and a clear mind.
“Talking to DeShone (Kizer) about Wake Forest (in 2015), he said that was the hardest team to combat because he didn’t know where the pressure was coming from,” said Morgan, referring to Elko’s defense with the Demon Deacons.
Notre Dame’s 15 first downs against Wake Forest were the fewest of the 2015 season in a year in which the Irish averaged 22.4 per game. The 111 yards passing versus the Demon Deacons was the lowest of the season by nearly 100 yards. The 282 yards total offense was the only time all season Notre Dame gained less than 405 yards.
Fortunately for the current Irish defense, the confusion Elko’s Wake Forest defense caused for Kizer and Co. is now in Notre Dame’s plus column. Now it will be Elko confusing the opposition, not the Irish offense…unless it’s on the Notre Dame practice field.
The bonus: It doesn’t come at the expense of the defense’s knowledge base or comfort level.
“He was like, ‘Relax. You’re going to learn it. It’s not that hard. Just keep your head on straight and everything will be fine,’” said Morgan of his first meeting with Elko.
“So far he’s right. It’s not overly complicated. Guys get it and it makes sense to everybody. Everybody is on the same page.”
If you like drama, the defense under Brian VanGorder provided all the ingredients for a best-selling novel. That didn’t bode well, however, for a group of defenders trying to decipher the hieroglyphics that was the VanGorder scheme.
“Things are said and done a certain way and it won’t change,” said Morgan of Elko’s scheme. “Every defense has adjustments, but adjustments aren’t complicated.”
Why won’t/don’t opposing offenses adjust if the defensive adjustments aren’t complicated?
“Because they don’t know what’s coming,” Morgan said. “Our offense doesn’t know what’s going on. There are times where things may look the same but we know that they’re not.
“Sometimes we don’t realize that they look the same. But you watch the tape – I watch film all the time – and you (realize) there’s no way they know.”
Ultimately, being stout enough up front will be the greatest challenge for Morgan and the rest of the Irish defense, which lacks proven playmakers along the defensive line. But the comfortable fit and peace of mind that comes with the Elko scheme has allowed Morgan to be a part of the solution.
“When he’s talking concepts, I get it because I’ve seen it so many times,” Morgan said. “A young guy coming in, he’s like, ‘What is it?’ I’m like, ‘It’s easy, bro.’
“I forget how I once was in his shoes. But right now, everything is flowing fast and I’m doing my thing.”
Morgan has come a long way from the days of the confused freshman filling in for an injured Joe Schmidt in 2014 and the mostly-dormant sophomore upon Schmidt’s return to the field in 2015.
Morgan also has reshaped his body to the extent that physically, he feels much more comfortable at a lighter, more mobile weight.
“Before I was like 250, which was cool and all, but I realized I could play at 240, 235 as far as block destruction and getting around quicker.”
The architect of that physical transformation is Matt Balis, Notre Dame’s Director of Football Performance, who began the process of reshaping the Irish in January.
In the tradition of former Irish head coach Lou Holtz when his arrival at Notre Dame led to what players called “the pukefest” during the early days of strength and conditioning, Balis has instituted a physical training regimen that has been eye-opening.
“Balis’ regimen is the hardest thing I’ve ever done,” Morgan said. “I know a lot of guys feel the same way. I’d never seen the same guys puke more than like twice during workouts. Every day there’s somebody puking. It’s good but it’s bad, but it’s good overall.
“The first day, we had just lifted and guys were puking during the lift. No one ran at all. I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ But now, guys are starting to adapt, starting to get better and grow, and build the great mentality we really need.”
Morgan describes Balis’ approach. Full use of the entire weight room. A pre-workout warm-up that is a workout in itself. Relentless training sessions. An attention to detail encompassing an entire body workout, including strengthening the neck, which is an essential but often overlooked area of needed strength with the collisions that regularly occur on the football field.
“It’s translated really well,” Morgan said. “I feel like I’m moving around a lot better. Now I have the opportunity to slip blocks more in the backfield. I feel more explosive. I can cover guys way better. Everything is working out well.”
Clearly, one of the ringleaders of the Irish defense – in fact, the most vocal and physical presence on the entire defense – is Morgan, who appreciates where the program is now after spinning its wheels for three years.
“The energy around here is a lot different,” Morgan said. “Guys are learning the defense and they’re actually picking up on it pretty well. Guys are flying around and making plays in the backfield and on the ball, and guys are having fun.”
Fun on the football field translates into feeling better and knowing what to do. For Morgan, it’s also about maximizing his skillset that he considers elite.
“I’ve never strived for being anything but the best at all times,” Morgan said. “But now I feel like I can play at the top level. There’s nothing less.”