As a Southern California resident, there are not many people around here who obsess over Notre Dame football quite like myself. Sure, there are a lot of fans in this area–there is always a strong turnout when the Irish take on the team that shall not be mentioned– but not many who follow the ins and outs of spring football. So naturally, when the football team comes up this time of year the question is always the same “Who is going to start at quarterback next year?”
Of course, this makes sense; quarterback battles are always exciting and the most intriguing of any position battle, and the one going on in South Bend right now has all of that. The fiery, ultra competitive, plays better when the lights come on in Malik Zaire, versus the cool, young, has all the tools you’d want in a quarterback in DeShone Kizer. The winner will be the face of the team, the loser will be very upset. So yes, it makes all the sense in the world that this competition dominates the headlines and is the first thing everyone asks regarding spring ball.
The thing is though, it’s a little overrated. What everyone is really waiting to find out regarding the quarterbacks is which guy is going to be picked to average 30+ points a game and lead an offense that will finish around the top 20-30 nationally in total offense. Both can run, both can throw, and both do one a little bit better than the other. Whoever wins, the offense will run pretty much the same. Frankly, the whole thing is a little boring.
There is one question almost no one asks, and yet the answer holds the key to Notre Dame’s success or failure during the 2016 campaign: How is middle linebacker Nyles Morgan looking?
There is a case to be made that the most important quarterback on the Irish football team is the quarterback of the defense, and in the Brian VanGorder version, that player happens to be the middle linebacker. Irish fans saw the game manager version the last two seasons with Joe Schmidt; the guy who could get the team lined up and into the right play, but was short on playmaking ability and overall production. Unfortunately, the middle linebacker position in this defense is a playmaking position, and Schmidt just wasn’t up to that task. Consequently, the defense suffered. They weren’t efficient blitzing up the middle, they were lacking in pass coverage, and they gave up long drive after long drive for touchdowns. In all, 27 touchdown drives of 70 yards or more were surrendered by the defense. And this was with all world Jaylon Smith and likely second round pick Sheldon Day out there.
The man in the middle matters, more than anyone else.
If you’re anyone who listens to Irish podcasts, visits message boards, or tunes to local radio, you’ve heard the “why can’t Nyles Morgan get on the field” many times before. It seemed to make no sense. He’s big (6-3, 240), he’s fast, he’s strong and he hits like a mack truck. Why couldn’t this guy take a meaningful snap last season on defense, especially given Schmidt’s struggles? The simple answer appears to be that the defense is, in fact, complicated (contrary to what the Notre Dame coaches want us to believe) and there was likely a motivational gap for Morgan knowing that no matter what he did, he was not going to unseat Schmidt for the starting spot.
To be fair, the stakes are pretty high in this defense, which utilizes linemen shooting into gaps and linebackers critically taking the proper holes, or as Kelly likes to say, the proper run fits. This is a one gap team, which means if everyone takes their gap, and I don’t take my gap, people run. For a long time. It was something we saw constantly against Louisville and Northwestern in 2014 while Morgan was filling in for the injured Schmidt, and while Schmidt wasn’t perfect during his time in the middle of the defense, the coaches surely trusted him more than Morgan to go where he was supposed to go and get everyone else on the same page. If that task can’t get done consistently, the defense just simply can’t be competitive.
Now Schmidt is gone, and it’s Morgan’s defense, a responsibility that not even Jaylon Smith had to take on. Morgan has no one to lean on, there is no backup plan, no seasoned veteran like Jarrett Grace to put out the fire if Morgan falters. Fortunately, due to Morgan’s immense skill set, the upside is tremendous. This isn’t a situation where the reward doesn’t equal the risk. If Morgan hits, he’ll hit big. The downside, of course, is failure in the middle can wreck the season. Look at what happened after Schmidt went down in 2014, it was a dumpster fire defensively.
What should give all of us a feeling of relief is Morgan appears to be taking this challenge head on, with the kind of attitude that you would want from someone in his position, both as a middle linebacker and the head of the defensive unit. More importantly, his play seems to be at a level that we haven’t seen from him, or his position, since Brian VanGorder took over the defense in 2014. He’s shooting gaps and cutting off running backs, he’s getting after the quarterback, and he’s covering Corey Holmes down the seem. He’s being the leader, that strong voice that the defense needs, that he wasn’t ready to be the last two seasons, which is something that coach Kelly went into in depth after one of the Irish practices. Now that it’s his time and his defense, it appears he’s prepared to seize his moment.
The question remains as to how much Morgan’s emergence as a quality player helps the defense in the long run. After all, Notre Dame had the best linebacker in the country last year, along with one of the best defensive tackles in front of him and that didn’t seem to matter, the defense still struggled. Just like with the quarterback on offense being the key, the same is true with this defense. Imagine the weapons Notre Dame had on offense last year–Will Fuller, Ronnie Stanley, CJ Prosise, et al–with Tommy Rees at quarterback. Would the offense have been as exciting or as dynamic as it was? Of course not, Rees is not a playmaker. The same with Schmidt and Morgan. Schmidt did all of the baseline things, the basic things that had to get done to allow the defense to function. Morgan can take it to the next level, just like we saw with Zaire and Kizer on offense.
Fans got a little taste of what Morgan could mean to the defense during the annual Notre Dame spring game last Saturday. I’m sure we’ve all heard ad nauseum how inconsequential the spring game can be. We get it everyone, we shouldn’t come to hard conclusions over what we see. However, things like flashes of athleticism from certain players–like Morgan peeling off a block and hunting down quarterback Malik Zaire and forcing an incompletion (which might remind one of a recently departed linebacker known for his athletic exploits)–should still resonate and provide something of a harbinger of things to come.
Notre Dame is going to be a very good offensive team in 2016, too many weapons and too much experience not to be. It’s a high ceiling, high floor situation, which is a nice place to be. Morgan in the middle gives Notre Dame a higher ceiling than they’ve had in the past, which is why this team can exceed the performance of years prior. Does he solve all of their problems? No, certainly not. But, Morgan gives them a chance to be really good, and a really good defense paired with the Notre Dame offense, whoever is playing quarterback, can take Notre Dame to heights not yet reached in the Brian Kelly era.