Notre Dame's Nyles Morgan persists in coming of age

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Nyles Morgan’s favorite Christmas present of all time was a Spiderman figure that had the ability to shoot webs from its hands.

And basically ravage any semblance of housekeeping Morgan hadn’t already undone in the normal course of being a kid.

“It was all over the house,” the Notre Dame linebacker recalled. “It was ridiculous.”

And probably not necessarily in the hip sense of the word.

And certainly not unlike Morgan’s freshman season at ND in many respects. Kind of disheveled, all over the place, ridiculous and …

Still very promising. In every sense of the word.

In three starts and two relief appearances in November, the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Crete, Ill., product amassed 39 of his 43 tackles on the season — leaving him just two short of cracking the top 10 all-time for tackles by a freshman at ND and five short of overtaking Kory Minor and Steve Niehaus for eighth place on that list.

Processing those numbers has been polarizing, with Morgan garnering freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News while all too often sending Irish first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder on a search for more Advil.

“I think the one thing I love about Nyles is that he’s so thick-skinned,” Irish head football coach Brian Kelly said of Morgan, microwaved into ND’s starting middle linebacker in November when previous starter Joe Schmidt’s season was cut short by injury.

“I mean he is a bull. He just keeps coming at you and wants to learn every day. It doesn’t matter if he made 53 mistakes the week before. He comes back with such an incredible want and desire to learn more the next day.

“I just love the way he comes to work each day, and I know coach VanGorder feels the same way. He’s going to be a special player.”

The lingering question remains: How soon?

Morgan and the Irish (7-5) face 22nd-ranked LSU (8-4) Dec. 30 at the Music City Bowl in Nashville, Tenn. The Tigers feature the most potent rushing attack the Irish have seen all season (27th nationally out of 125), outside of triple-option-heavy Navy, and the least-prolific passing attack (114th) ND has game-planned for other than the Midshipmen.

The Irish have their last practice before Christmas break on Monday. They’ll reconvene in Nashville on Friday with an afternoon practice.

“LSU is power football, man on man,” Morgan said. “They’re not trying to trick you. They’re not trying to do anything deceitful. It’s like, you know where the ball is going, and you have to stop it.”

Getting starting defensive tackle Sheldon Day (knee) and cornerback Cody Riggs (stress reaction in foot) back from November injuries will certainly help in that regard.

But so perhaps will Morgan getting a chance to go back to basics, take a deep breath and grow without the duress of processing a game plan every week.

“I came from a high school system where it was kind of like, ‘See ball, get ball,’ compared to an NFL system (ND is running), Morgan said. “I think I skipped a few steps there. The curve has been very steep, but I’m learning every day.”

And each day the gains become a little less painful, although the self-deprecating Morgan still describes his film sessions with VanGorder as “not very pretty.”

He tends to tap Schmidt, a student assistant coach of sorts for the balance of the season, for advice. Morgan noted Schmidt and VanGorder seem to have the same knowledge base, but when he asks the former walk-on-turned-team MVP what he did wrong, “He’ll tell me without getting cursed out.”

Not that it fazes Morgan. He is consistently relentless in his quest to improve and resilient in the face of setbacks, even though inconsistency in performance, perhaps unfairly or prematurely, has defined him to this point. He also seems determined to outwork his opponents on the field and in the film room.

This week, he plans to reach out to former Crete-Monee High teammate Laquon Treadwell for a scouting report on LSU. Treadwell is a sophomore receiver for Ole Miss, whose team fell 10-7 to the Tigers in Baton Rouge, La., the week before Treadwell’s season ended with a gruesome leg injury.

Morgan also plans on swapping notes with Ole Miss defensive sibling standouts linebacker Denzel and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, whom Morgan met during the recruiting process.

Mississippi was one of nine SEC schools (among other national powers) the Irish were playing tug-of-war with in landing the nation’s No. 5 inside linebacker prospect nationally in the 2014 class per and the No. 72 prospect regardless of positon.

“I think it all started with my father,” Morgan said of his self-starter personality. “My dad was really hard on me. Back then, I didn’t understand why. But I definitely get it now, because I always want to learn and get better. And those are things he always preached to me as a kid.”

Thomas Morgan, long before he had to clean up all the Spiderman web residue, played linebacker at Western Illinois during his college days. Now he’s kind of the home version of VanGorder.

“My dad — by far,” the younger Morgan said when asked which one was tougher on him.

“He’s been everything. He texts me almost every day. He’s been there since birth, in the womb. He’s developed me into the person I am today. As far as a work ethic, resilience, intelligence, everything, I credit my father.”

And Morgan also credits his dad for warning him about the culture shock before he arrived at Notre Dame last summer.

“I tried not to listen,” he said.

“I was, ‘I got it, Dad.’ He’s like, ‘OK, you got it. You sure you got it?’

“He knew. He just always stayed by my side, even when things got rough. This stuff is not easy. It has its rough periods.”

And different challenges will come next season, when Schmidt returns and perhaps 2013 starting middle linebacker Jarrett Grace will to full form as well. Sophomore Will linebacker Jaylon Smith could move back outside, though Kelly is leaning toward the status quo, and freshman Greer Martini is surging at that position as a reserve anyway.

The Irish also add an influx of linebacker talent in Te’von Coney, Josh Barajas and Asmar Bilal in the 2015 recruiting class … which means Morgan fits in … where?

“Nyles has the flexibility to play all three positions,” Kelly said.

And he’s superhero-esque when it comes to being fearless in the face of a new challenge.

“He (Kelly) knows I’m very aggressive, very athletic and things like that,’ Morgan said, “but, you know, I just want to work and get better every day. I just want to get better.”


Notre Dame's Nyles Morgan is growing into his role as a starter on the injury-ravaged Irish defense. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)