Rock solid: Nyles Morgan stands out as leader of Notre Dame’s defense
Alex Carson | Friday, October 7, 2016
Amidst a sea of instability and struggles for the Irish defense this year, one man has stood out.
Starters have come and gone in the secondary, new faces have been integrated into the scheme and, perhaps most notably, a defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, has been fired.
Yet where others haven’t lived up to preseason expectations, Nyles Morgan has.
The junior middle linebacker leads the Irish in tackles with 45, and ranks in the top 20 nationally with 29 solo tackles. He’s not just the only Notre Dame player with a sack this season; he’s got two. When pundits rate the Irish defense’s performances, he’s the one most often mentioned in a positive light.
But as Morgan sees it, there’s plenty of room for him to evolve into a better player.
“I’ll say I’m doing the best I can. I still have a lot of growth to do for myself,” Morgan said. “There is no ‘not getting better.’ I’m 20 years old. I plan on playing a lot of football ahead of me one day, so there’s a lot of growth going on.”
Morgan’s story — especially for a recruit as highly touted as the Crete, Illinois, native was — has turned out a little different than originally expected. A four- or five-star recruit, depending on who you ask, and a 247Sports consensus top-three middle linebacker, Morgan didn’t become a regular starter for the Irish until this season, his junior year. He rarely saw defensive snaps as a sophomore, and only saw them as a freshman due to injury.
That came, in part, because he was stuck behind Joe Schmidt at the position. But it doesn’t mean Morgan didn’t get something out of his first two years in South Bend.
“I just learned how to stay positive and really learned how to keep my composure,” Morgan said of his time behind Schmidt and Jarrett Grace. “Really make sure that I keep learning, keep growing myself.”
There were those times in 2014, though, when Morgan slid into the starting role after Schmidt’s season-ending injury against Navy. He made four starts to close his freshman season — Arizona State, Northwestern, Louisville and LSU — but it was far from smooth sailing for Morgan. He was ejected for targeting against the Cardinals, which suspended him for the first half of the regular season finale at USC. The Irish went 1-4 and gave up an average of 41.2 points per game after he took the reins of the defense.
“It was something that you’ll never forget,” Morgan said of the experience. “You’re a freshman, trying to learn the defense. You remember all the bad times, remember what you did wrong and from there, you just kind of build on it and get better.”
One of the things that kept Morgan behind Schmidt a year ago was the latter’s ability to lead on the field.
“We really like Nyles, but I think it goes to probably more about wanting Joe’s communication out there,” Kelly said in September of 2015.
That meant Morgan was largely relegated to a special teams role. He made an impact — a key forced fumble against Navy swung momentum to open the second half — but it wasn’t a huge one. Yet, it wasn’t something Morgan was concerned with, he said.
“No matter what I’m doing, no matter what I’m playing or if I’m starting Mike or [special teams], it’s just like, when I touch the field, I just go off into my own zone,” Morgan said. “There is no thinking going on — obviously, there’s football thinking — but I’m not worrying about this or that. There are no worries for me; I’m out there playing football.”
This season, though, it’s different. Morgan was handed the keys to the defense before spring practice started and got praise early on from Kelly in his new leadership role — after the Blue-Gold Game, the Irish head coach called his communication “great.”
For Morgan, his leadership comes from two places: the position he plays and his desire to win games.
“I definitely [lead] just by default because I play middle linebacker, I’m the one communicating with the D-line, safeties, left-right, up-down,” Morgan said. “Even if you don’t want to, it just naturally happens where you’re telling guys what to do, where to go, especially as somebody who wants to win.”
Morgan said he started to fully grasp Notre Dame’s offense midway through his sophomore year, putting himself in a position where Kelly and VanGorder could name him the starter at middle linebacker from the opening day of spring practice.
“Like you have all the pieces there, and then it’s like someone just took it and just threw it in like a blender and scrambled it up for you,” Morgan said at media day in August. “You have to figure out what goes where, where’s this, where’s that? And now it’s like the blender has settled. You understand what’s going on now, you can see how it is. Stuff isn’t moving as fast, and now it’s just like I can put the whole piece together.”
Before the season, Morgan compared the Irish coaching staff’s entrusting him with the position to “someone [giving] you the keys to a mansion.” This week, he talked about that moment in the offseason as a relief.
“It was just like a big weight off your shoulders, something that you worked so hard for for the last two years. … Everything’s finally coming to fruition,” Morgan said.
The biggest challenge this week for the Irish defense, which is coming off arguably its best half of the year against Syracuse last Saturday, might be North Carolina State senior running back Matthew Dayes. However, Irish senior captain James Onwualu said he has faith in his teammate to get the job done.
“Their back’s a powerful back. He’ll get downhill once he’s in the space, he’s a pretty speedy guy as well,” Onwualu said. “Should be a good matchup for our linebackers. Excited to see what Nyles does against him.
“I’ll put my money on Nyles.”
With VanGorder’s firing, the past couple weeks have sent changes rippling through the Irish locker room — ones that have strengthened the defensive unit, Morgan said.
“It’s been really good. A lot of positive vibes going around, a lot of guys fighting for one another,” Morgan said. “It’s really become a real brotherhood, a real bond.”
And what’s Morgan’s view of a successful close to the Irish season?
“Beating every team we come across,” he said. “It’s simple.”