Defensive recruits get glimpse of Irish future

TYLER JAMES
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — With a watchful eye, Nyles Morgan directed his focus on Brian VanGorder's new defense Saturday.

For the first time inside Notre Dame Stadium the future Irish linebacker saw the scheme in a game setting during the Blue-Gold Game.

The mixture of starters and reserves didn't produce impressive results from the start, but the philosophy behind the defense has convinced Morgan that the future is bright.

"I like it, " said Morgan, who signed with ND in February. "It's more aggressive. It's an NFL style defense. It's more attacking."

The 6-foot-2, 223-pound freshman-to-be made the trip from Crete, Ill., to take in a game-like atmosphere one more time before he suits up in the fall.

"The atmosphere was great," Morgan said. "All the fans came out to help support us. There's a lot of people here."

The reported crowd of 27,986 may have had their eyes elsewhere, but Morgan focused on the inside linebackers, watching the reads and techniques required for VanGorder's defense.

Morgan also made the trip to South Bend previously this spring to watch practice. He sees the Mike linebacker position in his future.

"I feel more comfortable at Mike but I can play the other ones if need be,” Morgan said.

The future remains less certain for 2015 line-backer prospect Justin Hilliard, but if visits are any indication, the Irish sit in a good position. Hilliard made the trip to Notre Dame on Saturday despite being able to stay for only the first half of the Blue-Gold Game. He’s been to Notre Dame so many times he’s lost track of the exact number.

“That was my fifth or sixth time there so I'm definitely comfortable with mostly everything,” Hilliard said. “I was just up there to build some relationships with the coaches."

He took advantage of his time on campus before the game to talk with the entire coaching staff and most importantly, VanGorder, his potential position coach and defensive coordinator. The new scheme has left a strong impression with Hilliard.

"It seems more aggressive, even though they had to minimize it because they're on TV,” Hilliard said. “They don't want to show too much. It definitely seemed more aggressive and pretty exciting actually.”

He’s one of the top linebackers in the country no matter which recruiting service you prefer. 247Sports slates him as a five-star prospect, the No. 1 outside linebacker and No. 13 player in the entire 2015 class. Rivals rates him as a four-star recruit, the No. 1 inside linebacker and No. 47 overall.

The 6-2, 225-pound junior from Cincinnati St. Xavier said he’s looking to narrow his list to a top five after visiting Florida and Florida State later this spring. His top 10 from March included ND, Alabama, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida State, USC, Ohio State and Florida.

Another pair of Notre Dame defensive signees — Drue Tranquill and Nile Sykes — at-tended Saturday’s game to get a better look at VanGorder’s defense.

“They weren't throwing anything too tricky out there,” Tranquill said. “It was good to finally see the scheme with a 4-3 and two high safeties. It was good to see how coach VanGorder wanted to work things.”

Tranquill’s designation of a defensive athlete has yet to change. The 6-2, 210-pound senior from Fort Wayne (Ind.) Carroll has options as a safety or an outside linebacker.

"They still don't know for sure,” Tranquill said. “They're just throwing it out there that I need to be ready to learn both positions so that I can contribute as early as possible.”

Tranquill’s role could be comparable to the one occupied by John Turner and James Onwualu this spring. It’s a hybrid between a line-backer and a safety, and the Irish have shown the desire to use such a player in a sub pack-age.

"They play their safeties a little closer to the line, especially their strong safety,” Tranquill said. “He can come down in the slot sometime to guard a receiver. Very physical. They like to come down in the box and make plays.”

"I love the freedom the outside linebackers have. They like to string it out. They like to run sideline to sideline. I like the freedom they have going all the way out into the field and lining up across from receivers at times. That's definitely the kind of player I am. I like to play in space."

Sykes saw a defense on Saturday that re-minded him of the one he ran as a senior at Lombard (Ill.) Montini Catholic. VanGorder’s defense represents a much more complicated system, but a similar concept.

The 6-2, 220-pound freshman-to-be had his eyes on the outside linebackers on Saturday. VanGorder has left his options open with Sykes in terms of position, but Will or Sam linebacker seem to be a fit.

“My game is rushing the quarterback from the outside and being able to play in space so I wasn't really looking at the Mikes too much,” Sykes said. “I was looking more at the outside backers.”

When Sykes and the rest of the freshmen class arrive in June, the looking will start turning into learning. The next time they enter Notre Dame Stadium on a Saturday will be for the real thing this fall.

"Honestly, I wish I could have suited up,” Sykes said. “It was nice to see those guys out there hitting, running around, flying around and making plays. I can't wait to suit up myself and get out there with them.”

Notre Dame recruit Nyles Morgan watches from the sideline during the Blue-Gold Spring Football Game on Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)