Nyles Morgan leads linebacker corps into 2016
Zach Klonsinski | Friday, August 19, 2016
After losing two of Notre Dame’s most prominent faces from 2015 in team captains Jaylon Smith and Joe Schmidt, the Irish linebacker corps enters the new season with the largest holes to fill on the defensive side of the football.
Junior Nyles Morgan is chief among those embracing an expanded role, taking over Schmidt’s old role in the middle of the defense. After undergoing a steep learning curve during his first two seasons while learning defensive coordinator Brian Van Gorder’s schemes, Morgan said he feels like the “whirlwind” has finally settled down.
“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. “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 like now it’s just like I can put the whole piece together.”
Morgan said this spring was a turning point for him, starting with a change in his relationship with Van Gorder.
“I noticed that beginning of spring,” Morgan said. “We have spring evaluations. He told me, ‘This is your show. Run it how you want it. This is yours to lose.’ From that point on our relationship definitely changed because it went from being — I don’t want to say a [veteran] because I haven’t played yet, so I’ll say younger player to an older player. A younger player you know, Van Gorder’s on you. There’s no say so, there’s no, ‘Because I saw that…’ No. It’s ‘You didn’t do it right’ and that’s it.
“Now it’s just like, ‘OK, what’d you see? What happened this play?’ He’ll ask about different players on the team: the D-lineman, the safeties and things like that. So our relationship has definitely changed.”
Both Van Gorder and linebackers’ coach Mike Elston praised Morgan’s development.
“His freshman year he got thrown in there and he wasn’t ready to manage our defense,” Van Gorder said. “I respect him greatly as a player. He’s tough, he’s persevered, and he’s worked hard at it, and he’s done an admirable job at managing it all.
“… So his ability to persevere, he’s mentally tough. And part of his mental toughness and commitment to the game is to realize where he was, where he is, and where he can go, what is still out there for him. So he’s doing a good job. His last two practices have been his best practices in training camp. He’s on it.”
“The last four or five practices Nyles has been very impressive,” Elston added. “He’s very physical, very confident, communicating very well and he’s doing his job. He’s doing a great job. He knows the defense. He knows what guys around him are supposed to be doing. He’s doing a real nice job.”
Van Gorder said he met with Morgan before spring practice started to hand him the defense.
“He worked hard and he knew it. He knows the defense, and I wanted to let him know that’s the next step,” Van Gorder said. “That’s your next step. You’ve got to take charge. It’s yours, and a lot of guys are depending on your communication and how you call it.”
Morgan said that meeting was “like someone gave you the keys to a mansion.”
“Like ‘Here you go. It’s yours.’ You’re just like, ‘All this? This is my bathroom? Wow.’ That’s how [being named the middle linebacker] feels.”
Morgan was also quick to point out the extra responsibilities the middle linebacker position carries.
“I mean you’ve got a mansion. You’ve gotta pay the bills now, you’ve gotta do this, do that,” Morgan said. “But it’s something that you want to have, though. It’s not something that you want to shy away from. It’s definitely something that you want to have. Definitely something that you look forward to doing.”
Senior James Onwualu is slated to start at the strongside linebacker position, but he said his most important assignments so far this season have come in the film room while helping teach Van Gorder’s systems.
“A lot of times when you’re in the film room [the installs go] by so fast,” Onwualu said. “ … You’re putting in 10 things in a day, and it’s just ‘Bop, bop, bop, bop’ all thrown in because Coach Van Gorder’s done this for so many years. I think just being a vet and understanding it, I can relay the message in players’ terms, so I think that’s the biggest thing that I can do to help them.”
Elston said Onwualu’s leadership has been important for the growth of the position.
“James is a champion. He does everything right,” Elston said. “He works his butt off. He took charge this summer, and I think that was a big piece to it with all the guys. I think we’re going to have a very good linebacking corps, and I think James has done a nice job of getting the guys working very hard. And that’s the key piece is that they’re working hard.”
While Onwualu and Morgan have firm holds on their starting spots, the starter at weakside linebacker is far from settled. Junior Greer Martini and sophomores Asmar Bilal and Te’von Coney have all taken first-team reps during fall camp.
“It’s a very fluid situation like any depth chart,” Elston said of the weakside linebacker spot. “Asmar has a tremendous amount of ability so we’re trying to — you know he’s behind in his development and Greer’s taking a ton of reps, and Greer’s bouncing around from other positions also. He takes Sam reps, he takes Mike reps, he takes Will reps, he takes Dive reps, so Greer’s bouncing all over the place and it allows us to train Asmar, and Te’von’s doing a nice job as well. So trotting Asmar out there with the ones, it’s not 100 percent. We do it with each one of the guys, like Te’von took some [first-team] reps today, Greer takes [first-team] reps, so we just bounce it around.”
Martini’s versatility has allowed Notre Dame to train him at all three starting positions where he is “a legitimate contender to start at all three spots,” according to Van Gorder.
As the Irish prepare for a 2016 season that kicks off against Texas on Sept. 4, Onwualu said the linebackers and defense as a whole will be ready thanks to the high-level competition they face in practice.
“I think that it’s important for these guys to continue to compete because we have an unbelievable offense,” Onwualu said. “We’re playing a great team every single day and we need to take advantage of that. I have [senior receiver] Torii Hunter Jr. in the slot every single day, like I could ask for more, you know what I mean? I’ve got [senior running back Tarean Folston] in the backfield as a running back. He’s going to work me every single day, so they need to continue to take advantage of those opportunities to play an unbelievable offense and get those reps against the actual speed.”