Much of the focus this off-season on the defense side of the ball has been on simplifying the defense, improving fundamentals, and converting the unit from a liability to a weapon under new defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Just as important – possibly more – is the development of leaders on both sides of the ball. It looks like Nyles Morgan has taken that to heart for the Irish defense.
During Saturday’s open practice, the Notre Dame offense was getting the best of the defense early on. After the defense gave up one score in particular, Nyles Morgan had seen enough. He pulled his defense over to the side and gave them a talking to. The defense responded and played much better the rest of practice.
Getting to the point where he could make such an impact has been a work in progress for Morgan according to Brian Kelly. “Nyles has been refining his leadership skills,” Kelly told the media after practice on Saturday. “Early on Nyles’s intent and impact of what he was saying didn’t always match up.”
That doesn’t appear to be the case now. “His intent now and how he’s impacting are scoring very well in how he’s communicating. That’s been a work in progress and he’s taken taken a great deal of pride in making sure he can communicate effectively with his defensive players.”
The development of Nyles Morgan as the leader of the Notre Dame defense is just as important as following how players are taking to new roles and how the defense is coming together as a whole. The Notre Dame defense has not had an outspoken voice as the clear leader of the unit since Manti Te’o graduated four years ago.
What makes Morgan’s development as the leader of the defense even more exciting for Notre Dame is that he also just happens to be the best player in a Notre Dame uniform on that side of the ball – maybe even on either side of the ball.
When Notre Dame’s leaders are their best players the results tend to be very good. Just look at 2012 when Manti Te’o was the face of the team as he went on a rampage through the regular season that brought him to the doorstep of winning a Heisman Trophy as a defensive player. In fact, had it not been for the ridiculous season from Johnny Manziel, Te’o would have been the winner in almost any other year.
The lack of leadership on the 2016 squad has been well documented and is one of many reasons we saw the Irish fall from 10-3 to 4-8 in just one season. For as amazing as Jaylon Smith was throughout his career he was too busy masking Brian Vangorder’s scheme with his ridiculous play to have much time for anything else.
In 2013 and 2014, Notre Dame had some good defensive players but the defense didn’t have that vocal leader who just so happened to also be the unit’s best player. That does not appear to be the case in 2017. Nyles Morgan not only looks like Notre Dame’s best defensive player hands down, he is also one of the team captains.
Getting to this point has not been easy for Morgan on either the playing or leadership front. Rated as a 5-star recruit by Scout coming out of high school three years ago, Morgan was thrust into a prominent role in 2014 because of the injury to Joe Schmidt. Morgan, like so many other Irish players, though had difficulties with Brian Vangorder’s defense and barely played in 2015. In his defense, the only people who didn’t have difficulties with that defense were opposing offensive coordinators.
Morgan finally stepped into a starting role last year though and led the Irish in tackles with 94. He’s reportedly been molding his game to that of Marqel Lee from Mike Elko’s 2016 Wake Forest defense this offseason. Lee and Morgan had similar tackle totals last year, but while Morgan had just 4.0 sacks and and 6.0 TFL, Lee had 7.5 sacks and 20 TFL. Elko’s defense will highlight Morgan similarly and the results are starting to show.
When asked about Morgan playing fast on Saturday, Kelly praised the senior linebacker’s recognition skills. “A lot of that has to do with recognition,” Kelly said. “(He’s) very comfortable with what he’s doing defensively. What he’s seeing and reacting quickly.”
Morgan’s off-season transformation hasn’t just been on the field though. He’s worked at becoming a better leader and communicator. His improvement here has not surprised his head coach. “It doesn’t surprise me,” Kelly said. “He’s taken a lot of pride in wanting to be a really effective communicator.”
If Morgan continues to show improvement on the leadership front and if his output comes close to mirroring what Lee did for Wake Forest last year, we will be talking about a legit Butkus contender and likely front runner. We’ll also be having a much different conversation about the Notre Dame defense by season’s end.
It won’t be too long until we find out if that’s the case and that is something that not only excites Notre Dame fans, but Morgan himself. “Nyles will be the first one to tell you he loves football,” said Kelly on Saturday. “He’s doing weight training because he has to weight train. He’s working out in the summer because he has to work out in the summer, but he can’t wait for football because that’s what he’s best at.”
Notre Dame fans can’t wait for football either and we can’t wait to see Nyles Morgan do what he does best.