Notre Dame's Nyles Morgan Sets Tone For 2016 Defense
CULVER, Ind. — Nyles Morgan said his hunger level is “through the roof.”
The Notre Dame middle linebacker has the chance he’s been waiting for.
One of the leaders on the Irish defense, the 6-foot-1, 245-pound junior has ascended into a starting role and is expected to be a major contributor on defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s unit.
“I just had to wait my turn,” Morgan said after the team’s first preseason practice, which was held at Culver Academies. “Simple as that. In the spring, that’s when I really had my chance to prove myself. I did my thing, now here I am.”
As a freshman, Morgan played in 12 games — including four starts in place of an injured Joe Schmidt — and finished with 47 tackles and 3.5 tackles for loss. He was named a Freshman All-American.
In 2015, Morgan took a back seat to Schmidt. Morgan had just 17 tackles and a forced fumble, stuck behind Schmidt — who Pro Football Focus graded out in the bottom 10 at his position in the country.
A former four-star prospect from Crete, Illinois, who had scholarship offers from the nation’s top programs, including Alabama, Ohio State and USC, Morgan said he’s come a long way since his freshman season, a campaign PFF described Morgan playing “like a chicken with his head cut off.”
“I’ve learned so much more. My freshman year I just came out of high school to an NFL system,” Morgan said. “Now that I’ve had time to learn it I know where I gotta be, where the Will has to be, the Sam, the safeties, the D-Line. Pretty much everybody. I’ve put on about 25 pounds on top of that.”
Morgan said he’s kept his speed — “never had a problem with that", he said — while adding the weight, better able to battle in the trenches.
A better understanding of the game and an improved physique has placed high expectations on Morgan, who is one of 51 players on the Butkus Award watch list, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker.
“I can see tendencies now, I can see the linemen, tight ends, running backs, I can see all of it. I just know what to do now,” Morgan said. “(That makes me) faster. The faster you can be somewhere and they’re not, and you’re bigger, that’s tackles, more TFL’s, more stops.”
Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly was asked about Morgan during Friday’s preseason practice opening press conference. The seventh-year coach complimented Morgan, saying the linebacker has the trust of the 10 other players on defense, as well as VanGorder.
“The middle linebacker position is the most difficult position to get down and he's got it cold. He knows what he's doing,” Kelly said of Morgan.
As the central figure on a unit that finished 45th in the country (372.7 yards per game allowed), 39th in scoring defense (24.1 ppg), 72nd in rushing defense (175.6 ypg allowed) and forced just 14 turnovers, Morgan said the relationship between himself and VanGorder has changed since last season ended.
“It’s a lot more like instead of coach and then a young player, it’s more of an older player,” Morgan said. “We’re having conversations about maybe younger cats and we’re discussing defense instead of him just telling me about this and that.
“It just gives you a good feeling that he knows that you know what you’re doing. He doesn’t have to worry about you.”
The coaching staff will instead focus on finding a backup for Morgan during preseason practice. The reserves — led by sophomore Josh Barajas — will follow the lead of Morgan, who Kelly said has improved as in that capacity.
“I think more than anything else, he's become and has to be at some position, somebody that communicates,” Kelly said. “He's now become the kind of communicator necessary to get the front lined up.
“As it relates to being out in front of the group, you know, look, he's not a guy that's naturally going to take the reigns and jump out in front. He knows his role and his place is to be a leader on the football field and he's doing a good job there. But he holds others accountable on a day-to-day basis like other players do in the program, as well.”
Morgan on being the middle linebacker and a leader of the defense: “It feels pretty good. Plain and simple.”