Over the past six weeks UHND has previewed a host of players for its annual “Now or Never” series, from quarterback Malik Zaire, wide receivers Torii Hunter and Corey Holmes, tight end Durham Smythe, running back Tarean Folston and safety Max Redfield. This week UHND concludes the series with an in-depth look at new starting Mike linebacker, Nyles Morgan.
Nyles Morgan was a highly coveted 4-star inside linebacker prospect from Crete, Ill., with scholarship offers from the nation’s top programs, including Alabama, Ohio State and USC. Despite the elite offer list Notre Dame found itself in a battle with Ole Miss for his services after the Mississippi-based SEC program signed Morgan’s former high school teammate and friend – former 5-star and most recent first-round NFL draft selection of the Minnesota Vikings, Laquon Treadwell – during the previous recruiting cycle. Head coach Brian Kelly’s staff used creative methods, such as sending a Pot of Gold which contained 477 letters, to sway Morgan toward South Bend before the 4-star recruit ultimately committed to Notre Dame during the U.S. Army All-American Bowl game.
Reason for Optimism
Irish fans should be optimistic about Nyles Morgan because he possesses one of the highest talent ceilings on the team. The Illinois native was forced into action and started four games his freshman year after Joe Schmidt was sidelined with injury, and the young inside linebacker responded by recording 47 tackles and being named a Freshman All-American. Tom Lemming, a national recruiting analyst, was hardly surprised by Morgan’s impressive play early on.
“He’s a Seattle Seahawks-type defender – aggressive, mean, tough, take-no-prisoners attitude, and he can strip the ball from you,” Lemming said. Normally Notre Dame fans would take offense to a player being compared in a positive way to a Pete Carroll-led team, but in this case Irish fans should make an exception.
“He’s a perfect inside backer. He makes plays from sideline-to-sideline. He can fit through traffic, play the game on his feet and then he can wrap up and tackle. He doesn’t just knock you down.”
Entering his third season, Morgan began to display the characteristics Lemming described during spring practice, impressing the coaching staff in the process.
“He’s bringing that physicality to every practice, that physical toughness to our defense,” Brian Kelly said of Morgan during the spring. “Joe Schmidt was a smart player, he was a heady player, but he wasn’t the most physically gifted player that we had. Nyles Morgan is a tough, physical football player.”
Reason for Doubt
As gifted as Morgan is physically, Irish fans have every right to be skeptical of Morgan for the 2016 football season given he’s practically a completely unknown commodity. Why did one of the coveted inside linebackers in the nation, a Freshman All-American and one of the “most physically gifted players that we had”, according to Brian Kelly, regress during his sophomore year and fail to unseat a former walk-on for the starting Mike linebacker position? The popular theory amongst fans is defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder prized Schmidt’s mental acumen more than Morgan’s raw athleticism, but the truth is no one knows for certain, and it’s a topic Morgan refuses to address with the media.
“Obviously that’s tough because I’m a natural-born competitor,” Morgan said to the media in response to his lack of playing time in 2015. “I understand it was for the right reasons. I never once had anything bad to say about it. I took it with a grain of salt and from there kept getting better. Whatever I did, I made sure my game kept getting better. I kept learning. I kept asking questions and kept developing.”
Regardless of why he couldn’t snag the starting spot from Joe Schmidt last fall, another reason to doubt Morgan in 2016 is his lack of experience. Notre Dame fans may not want to hear it but despite his limited athletic ability losing Joe Schmidt means losing 20 career starts and 151 career tackles at one of the most important positions on defense. Schmidt’s experience will be a challenge to replace.
Nyles Morgan’s 2016 Outlook
One of the difficult components of projecting Morgan’s season in 2016 is trying to separate fact from fiction. The Notre Dame coaching staff spoke very highly of Morgan’s performance during the spring, but how much of it was truth and how much was intended to build up Morgan’s confidence? The limited information available makes it hard to predict, but it’s hard to imagine Morgan not having a breakout season in his third year on campus.
Notre Dame has lacked difference-making athleticism at the Mike position for the past several seasons and there’s a reason several recruiting outlets called the former 4-star prospect a “freak” athlete. And while Morgan may lack experience, it’s incredible how forgiving elite athleticism can be when trying to recover from a mistake. The expectation is Morgan will become a star in 2016, and the fact he was named to The Butkus Award watch list, an award given annually to the nation’s best linebacker, is a testament to that expectation.
Look for Nyles Morgan to become a household name for the Notre Dame defense this fall.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for The Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.