Notre Dame recruit Nyles Morgan embraces cerebral side of life

ERIC HANSEN
South Bend Tribune

CRETE, Ill. -- The fact that Nyles Morgan has requested uniform No. 5 when he arrives at Notre Dame in June seems saturated in coincidence.

“It has nothing to do with Manti Te’o,” offered the prep All-America linebacker from Crete-Monee High School.

Actually, in a twisted sort of way, it does.

The uniform number has been with Morgan since he barged his way onto the burgeoning Chicago south suburban football power’s varsity roster as a surprise sophomore starter 2½ years ago. It turns out numbers at Crete-Monee are assigned in order of seniority, and the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Morgan essentially got last pick.

That he wants to carry that once-random assignment to a conscious choice at ND isn’t a tip of the cap to the most decorated college football player ever on the awards circuit as much as it is a nod to himself, and everyone else, that he’s not afraid of the comparisons it might invite.

“Nyles Morgan is a much different type of linebacker than Manti Te’o,” said Tom Lemming, CBS College Sports recruiting analyst, of the 2012 unanimous All-American and Heisman Trophy runner-up. “But he can have the same kind of impact.

“He’s a Seattle Seahawks-type defender — aggressive, mean, tough, take-no-prisoners attitude, and he can strip the ball from you. He’s a perfect inside ’backer. He makes plays from sideline to sideline. He can fight through traffic, play the game on his feet and then he can wrap up and tackle. He doesn’t just knock people down.”

Nor does he last too long in the shadows. In any setting.

Morgan is arguably the cornerstone football recruit in the 2014 Irish class, 23 members deep with all but the two early enrollees signing their national letters-of-intent on Wednesday.

Offensive lineman Quenton Nelson is actually ND’s highest-rated prospect by most recruiting services. But given the combination of Morgan’s talent, his ambition and, until Wednesday, ND’s suddenly low inventory of both bodies and potential star power at the inside linebacker position, he may very well be the player with both the most immediate and lasting impact.

What feeds his potential is how his personality radiates equal parts confidence and humility, and how purposeful every thought, how cerebral every action, how grounded every dream seems to be.

You can see it in his post-signing day plans, how he has committed to running track for Crete-Monee — the 200-meter dash and the 4-by-200 specifically in the spring — to help improve his speed. He also hopes to devour the Irish playbook in the coming weeks and regularly traverse the 90 miles to South Bend and become a fixture on the sidelines at ND’s spring practices when those ramp up in less than four weeks.

His intellectual side also drove his college decision, especially after he named six finalists in early September that included Tennessee, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss, Florida, Texas A&M and Michigan State, and excluded the Irish.

“After I put that out, I started to re-evaluate a lot of the things I said I wanted in a school,” Morgan said. “And of course, Notre Dame had something that I wanted. And so I decided to take an official visit there. I went to the USC game (Oct. 19), had a blast, came back for the BYU game (Nov. 23), and that’s where my recruitment started to pick back up again as far as them.”

Jaylon Smith, ND’s rising star freshman at outside linebacker and who briefly pondered donning No. 5 himself before settling on No. 9, helped Morgan find context whenever he had questions or doubts.

“Nyles is a bright young man,” Crete-Monee head coach John Konecki said. “He knows that football is going to be a small part of his life. He really started to become more and more interested in what goes on later on in life, beyond football. That’s why a place like Notre Dame is extremely intriguing to him.”

Morgan simply sees things, even football, through a different prism than most of his peers, although occasionally a lighter side emerges.

Like when Morgan last July attended The Opening, a prestigious invitation-only football camp sponsored by Nike. There the linebacker met 2012 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, a camp speaker, exchanged phone numbers with him and discovered they had the same shoe size (15s).

“He agreed we could trade shoes,” Morgan said with a smile. “And he had this pair of golden cleats I was supposed to get. But he left before we could trade. I still would make that trade if I had the chance.”

Truer to form, on one of his recruiting visits, Morgan was thrown into a film study session with the team’s current players. He raised his hand and asked a question, then another, then another.

“The coach told me he had been doing this a long time, and he had never had a recruit ask even one question in a film session,” Konecki related.

Morgan said his most memorable moment in early January at the U.S. Army All-American Bowl in San Antonio — the very venue in which he made his college decision public — was meeting a soldier who had been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor after losing his arm while saving his platoon from a live grenade.

His academic pursuit is torn at the moment between majoring in business or psychology, the latter because he wants to study the connection between head trauma sustained while playing football and the connected tales of heartbreak that happens years later, a la former NFL star Junior Seau.

“I want to find a solution,” he said.

A large part of his solution to elevating his own game on the football field is what he does off it, specifically studying film. Or rather immersing himself in film study.

“I’ve always enjoyed watching football,” Morgan said. “Even as a little kid playing baseball, when I hadn’t even started playing football, I’ve always watched football. Later when I had started playing football, it kind of clicked with me: The more I know about my opponent, the better prepared I’ll be.

“I’ll know the tendencies, know what they do, what the line will do, figure out certain plays. The way I look at it, if you don’t watch film, you don’t love the game as much as I do. I want to know everything, so I can win, because I hate losing — with a passion.”

Lemming said Morgan’s passion for watching film and ability to extract tangible lessons from it give him an extra step in games and perhaps toward significant playing time at ND as a freshman.

“He’s going to be ready, and he’s got the hunger,” Lemming said. “A lot of times when you’re that talented, the only thing missing is the willingness to work hard. He’s already found that in himself.

“When you think about high school kids, hardly anybody watches film period, let alone to that extent. Some quarterbacks do, but for a defensive player in high school to do that, that’s very unusual.”

Actually, it’s kind of become part of the culture at Crete-Monee, a school that produced two Division I football players in the first six decades of its existence by Konecki’s research (including former Irish flanker and current South Bend resident Mike Favorite) but 10 in the past seven recruiting cycles.

That includes Morgan’s good friend, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who this past season became the first Ole Miss player ever to win SEC Freshman of the Year honors. The two combined to lead Crete-Monee to an undefeated season and its first football state title (Class 6-A out of eight classes) in 2012. The Warriors were 8-2 this past season.

“I watched Nyles Morgan play in person each of the last three years,” Lemming said. “In 2012, I specifically went to watch Laquon Treadwell, but I came away thinking Nyles Morgan was the best player on the field. He seemed to make every tackle.”

“It’s such a special group of kids,” Konecki said, “and it really is the kids. We don’t have a college-caliber weight room or extraordinary facilities. I mean, up until last year we had one blocking sled, and it was held together by duct tape.

“And we’ve got more kids like that coming. You can see that all the way down to the eighth grade. Someday we’ll look back at this time period and say ‘Wow.’ ”

The recruiting process made Morgan at times say “Wow,’’ but at times he found it just as repulsive. So persistent and extensive was the media corps who pursued his thoughts on a daily basis, and often after 11 o’clock at night, the standout linebacker was prompted to change his phone number.

Rival coaches were not as quite as invasive but still were trying to flip Morgan as recently as last week.

“Wasn’t going to happen,” he said with a smile.

He did admit, though, about a month before he committed in January, when the Irish lost offensive coordinator Chuck Martin (Morgan’s lead recruiter) to Miami of Ohio and defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Bob Diaco to UConn, that the changes shook him up.

“Of course it did,” he said. “But I had a long talk with (ND head coach) Brian Kelly and then I met the new (defensive coordinator), coach (Brian) VanGorder, and we clicked instantly.

“Coach VanGorder has coached in college and in the pros. He knows how potentially he can get me to the League and he knows how to make me the best I can be in college. He knows all these schemes from the NFL. Bringing it down to a college level, it’ll be like a man’s game vs. a child’s game, so to speak.”

And yet Morgan knows that there will be dark days and trying times ahead.

“There’s always something in your way,” he said. “This season, the defense had to carry a lot more of the load than in 2012. I remember the game against Bloom, we had a 20-play standoff at the goal line. I came back, my nose was bleeding and my face was cut open. That’s when you all pull together. That’s what it’s all about.”

Star linebacker Nyles Morgan will sign with Notre Dame on Wednesday. (Photo courtesy of the Times of Northwest Indiana).