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Sky’s the limit: As a player and leader, Nyles Morgan is making the most of his final season with the Irish

| Friday, November 17, 2017

Lauren Weldon and Eddie Griesedieck | The Observer

Editor’s Note: A version of this article originally appeared in the Oct. 6 edition of The Observer.

Nyles Morgan has always been a guy that let his talking happen on the field.

An Army All-American in high school, Morgan committed to Notre Dame over a number of schools, including SEC powerhouses Ole Miss and Florida.

“I took my official at the USC game, and that was like one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen,” Morgan said on experiencing Notre Dame as a recruit. “We won that game, and it was like this place just kind of just erupted. You know, that’s what pretty much sold me here.”

As a freshman, Morgan featured heavily in the second half of the season, starting four of the final five games after Joe Schmidt went down with a broken leg against Navy, and finished seventh on the team with 47 tackles.

“He made some real big physical plays for us,” Brian Kelly said on his performance after that 2014 win over Navy.  “We just know he’s going to be a good player, he’s just a young guy that just needs to continue to grow and he’s going to get that opportunity because he’s going to be put in that position now.”

Wherever Notre Dame has needed Morgan, he’s done the job.

After Schmidt returned in 2015, Morgan stepped back into more of a special-teams role, and subsequently led the team with eight tackles on kickoffs. In 2016, in a starting role he was one of the few bright spots on a defense that suffered from a lack of experience, leading the team with 94 tackles. And now in 2017, as a captain, he’s taken on the task of leading Team 129, both on and off the field.

“I’ve definitely made some progress,” Morgan said on his overall progression as a player. “Coming in as a freshman, everything is bright-eyed, everything is kind of new for you. And coming in as a senior [this year] and looking back, I’m proud of my struggle and success, my growth and now I’m taking the knowledge I’ve learned and giving it back to our younger players.”

And now as a captain, he’s taken it upon himself to make sure the younger guys develop on and off the field.

“The biggest thing I do is to make sure to keep them on the right course off the field, and on the field that’s where we specialize,” Morgan said. “That’s where guys are learning each and every day. I’m always throwing out tips here and there, left and right, but you make sure that they understand that it’s more than just football, it’s who you are as a person too.

“ … You have to lead by example because you have to play well, you have to do the right things well or there’ll be guys that kind of look side-eyed at you like ‘Well you don’t that.’ And with my voice, when the time is right guys need to hear your voice so you kind of have to pick and choose your moments.”

For Morgan, one of the biggest impacts on his time here at Notre Dame was Butkus award winner and former Irish linebacker Jaylon Smith, who really took Nyles under his wing.

“I talk to Jaylon like every day. [His impact] has been huge,” Morgan said. “I’ve learned a lot from Jaylon from his time here. He was always like a big brother to me, making sure I stayed out of trouble, making sure I was doing the right things, and I learned a lot from him on how to be a pro, little linebacker stuff here and there that you may not get from a coach and he’s had a very good impact on my life.”

Notre Dame’s defense has undergone a radical transformation this season as a unit under first-year Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Through their first five games, the Irish have given up an average of 18.2 points, down 15.3 from last year, as well as 75.2 less yards than 2016. The unit has also recorded 12 turnovers so far this year, compared to just four through five games last season.

“Mike Elko has done a great job of bringing guys together, and making it so that we all have one job to do, and then if you just do that job everything will work itself out,” Morgan said on the shift this year. “ … He’s made it to a point where we can understand it and taught it to where we can get it in a good fashion and he’s done a good job of bringing it down to where we understand it and schematics and concepts, when you start applying them it makes sense.

“ … We’re just doing our job and when the ball pops up in your gap it’s like: ‘I expected this.’ You don’t have to find the ball or anything like that, everyone has their fit in the defense and if everybody does that we all make plays, we all do great and the ball just seems to come out.”

Under new director of football performance Matt Balis’ strength and conditioning program, the team has raved about the recent performances after an off-season of hard work. For Morgan, it has stemmed from the program being oriented around the team.

“Everything was vigorous but it was team-oriented, so you weren’t just lifting weights, you weren’t just running around, you were doing it for someone else,” he said. “That plays well into the game of football because all we do it for is each other, we all want to see each other succeed and we all want to succeed as well, and we know we can’t do it without our teammates. So that played a very big role in how we are playing right now.”

And the next step? Like it’s always been for Morgan, what matters is the here and now.

“Right now, I’m just really worried about the season, I’m not really looking too much ahead to anything right now, because the biggest thing is to finish off this season strong.

“ … The sky is the limit.”

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby is a junior PLS/Economics double major from Smithtown, New York.

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