Nyles Morgan was widely projected to be an impact freshman before ever stepping foot on campus last summer, but it took injuries to thrust the Scout 5-star linebacker into the starting line-up. Once there Morgan showed the normal growing pains of a true freshman, but as he heads into his second season, could he be ready for a breakout campaign?
Brian Kelly has been very careful this spring to note that Notre Dame will be playing a lot of linebackers. We know that Jaylon Smith is only coming off the field for injury, but outside of Smith, Kelly has talked about how Joe Schmidt, Jarrett Grace, James Onwualu, and Nyles Morgan will all be playing roles of sorts in the Irish defense. And at this time, that’s exactly what he should be saying.
No one can question the impact that Joe Schmidt’s leg injury had on the Notre Dame defense. Following the loss of Schmidt, the Notre Dame defense, which had already been showing some signs of weakness, completely fell off. Schmidt was the quarterback of the defense and without him, the Irish were missing that one steady point on the defensive side of the ball. Morgan, as a true freshman, was simply not ready to fulfill that role and without much senior leadership no one else was really ready to do so either.
For Morgan, he was busy trying to get himself in the right position let alone the rest of the defense and from time to time he didn’t even do that well. Such is almost always the case though with true freshman linebackers so that is not necessarily any indictment of Morgan so much as it just is normal growing pains for a true freshman at Morgan’s position.
Even with with mental lapses that allowed for some wide open running lanes for opposing running backs, Morgan started to get more comfortable as he gained more experienced and ended up earning Freshman All-American honors from the Football Writers Association of America after racking up 47 tackles, 3.5 TFL, and 0.5 sacks. Of those 47 tackles, 39 came over the last five games following Schmidt’s injury including three straight double digit tackles outings to end the regular season.
As Morgan gets ready for his sophomore season, a more involved role in the Irish defense would seem a given. The returns of Schmidt and Jarrett Grace, who missed the entire 2014 season, however, have given Notre Dame more depth than they’ve had at the position in some time which has given Kelly and defensive coordinator Brian Vangorder the ability to create competition in spring football. They’ll be able to do that even more so once Schmidt returns in the summer.
Even with that competition, expect to see Nyles Morgan on the field a lot in 2015. One of the biggest problems with the Notre Dame defense in the 2nd half of 2014 was opposing offenses going uptempo to prevent Notre Dame from making too many substitutions as they did earlier in the season. Given how well that worked, I doubt we’ll see any less of than in 2015. For that reason, Notre Dame is going to need to get it’s best linebackers on the field as often as possible and it’s hard to imagine Morgan not being one of them.
Morgan still has a lot to work on between now and September, but it’s easy to see the excitement in Brian Kelly’s eyes when he starts talking about the rising sophomore linebacker. Unlike most of the linebackers on the Irish roster outside of Jaylon Smith, Nyles Morgan brings size, speed, and athleticism and has the ability to be an every down backer – not just a situational role player. Schmidt, while invaluable on the field doesn’t have great size and after all the time off it will be interesting to see how much Grace’s athleticism is impacted.
In an ideal world, Morgan would be on the field as often as possible with Schmidt and Smith. Having the combined athleticism of Smith and Morgan on the field along with Schmidt’s guidance and leadership would give Notre Dame a trio of linebackers the likes of which this defense hasn’t seen in a while. In order for that to happen, though, Morgan is going to need to continue to develop and learn in each of the remaining six practices in spring practice and keep up that momentum through the off-season and into fall camp.