Behind Notre Dame LB Nyles Morgan's gradual rise

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the darkest moments, when seemingly everyone else was wondering if his squeezed opportunities would break him, Nyles Morgan had a couple of chance encounters with former Notre Dame All-America linebacker Manti Te’o.

His most valuable takeaway was not a message that Morgan had never heard or bought into before, but one that had rattled around in his own mind for some time and was now being validated by someone who mattered.

It was about mind-set, about focus, about never letting his circumstances dictate his passion.

And so as former walk-on Joe Schmidt played through intermittent struggles and less-than-optimum health at middle linebacker for the Irish in 2015 and Morgan sat, the latter didn’t ponder starting over somewhere else, or simply ferment until Schmidt had exhausted his college eligibility.

“I made sure that whatever I did, that my game kept getting better,” the Irish junior linebacker, now at the top of the depth chart, said Friday. “I kept learning, kept asking questions, kept developing.”

Pretty much the same as he always has done, even when his star was rising in dramatic fashion.

That was the case during Morgan’s final two seasons at Crete-Monee High School in Crete, Ill., south of Chicago. Originally college coaches found him when they came to see and be seen by Morgan’s prep teammate, Laquon Treadwell.

Treadwell was the nation’s No. 1 receiver prospect and No. 5 recruit overall in the class (2013) one ahead of Morgan’s, ended up at Ole Miss and will likely be a first-round draft choice as an early entry later this month.

Ole Miss was smitten with Morgan too, as were Alabama, Florida, Miami, Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and USC, among others. And when Morgan initially released a final top six choices, Notre Dame was nowhere to be found.

By the time he signed with the Irish in February of 2014, it could easily be argued Morgan was potentially the most impacting recruit in the Irish class. And only five-star offensive lineman Quenton Nelson carried a higher numerical ranking from Rivals among Morgan’s fellow ND signees — Nelson rated as prospect No. 29 overall nationally and Morgan 72.

Punctuating Morgan’s pedigree, and how it played into the big picture at inside linebacker, was a string of recruiting missteps, misevaluations and missed opportunities that preceded him at ND at those positions, though somewhat cushioned by the signing of the nation’s top outside linebacker in the cycle before Morgan arrived, Jaylon Smith.

The big whiff in Smith’s class appeared to be Pennsylvania five-star inside linebacker prospect Alex Anzalone, who defected from the Irish class to Florida as an early enrollee in the brief period in which ND head coach Brian Kelly stuck his toe in the NFL waters before recommitting to being a college coach.

In reality, injuries and ineffectiveness have limited Anzalone to 10 games in three seasons with the Gators, with 22 total tackles and zero sacks and turnovers forced. Even with limited opportunities, Morgan has roughly three times the tackles in two seasons.

Forty-seven of Morgan’s 64 came in the 5½ games he was ND’s default option at middle linebacker at the end of the 2014 season, after Schmidt — the team MVP that year — suffered a season-ending leg injury against Navy on Nov. 1 that season.

Morgan logged just 17 tackles last season, with seven of those coming in the 62-27 massacre of UMass.

“Obviously, it’s tough,” Morgan said. “It’s kind of like you got a taste, and then it gets pulled back. It was nothing that stopped my growth or anything like that.”

But it did cause a disconnect for those on the outside looking in.

“Nyles Morgan is a much different type of linebacker than Manti Te’o,” Tom Lemming, CBS College Sports recruiting analyst, said around the time Morgan signed with the Irish. “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.”

So why was his college career apparently backsliding? Was defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s defense too complex? Was Schmidt, and his command of how the pieces move in the defense, a security blanket for VanGorder? Had Morgan simply underwhelmed and underachieved?

Morgan himself has no interest in getting to the bottom of those questions.

He’s more concerned with setting a tone with his physicality, his intensity that the rest of a largely unproven Irish defense can emulate.

“If you don’t, I think things might fall apart,” he said. “That’s what coach VanGorder wants. I believe that’s what the team wants.”

Morgan on Friday got peppered with questions that prodded him for the details of what was believed to be a seismic makeover. In actuality, his rave reviews through spring practice, which just blipped past its halfway point, are more accurately an evolution.

Yes, there are differences. Morgan says he’s carrying 20 more pounds — now 245 — than at the tail end of his freshman season. And his knowledge of VanGorder’s schemes and its nuances has expanded to the point the coordinator actually refers to him now as “the man.”

“Now I get the whys,” Morgan said of the scheme. “Why this is this, why this is that. Once you get the whys, it makes you that much more confident.”

But the essence of who Morgan has long been hasn’t changed.

He’s still a guy who wants to study the connection between head trauma sustained while playing football and the heartbreaking stories that seem to crop up years later.

He’s still the kid who watched more film since high school than quarterbacks, and because he wanted to, not because he was told to. He’s still the same person who after he signed with ND, spent the spring running the 200-meter dash and the 4-by-200 relay for the Crete-Monee track team to help increase his speed.

He’s also every bit as resilient as his growing pains and VanGorder’s reactions to them his freshman season necessitated he be.

“It would make most young men weep," Kelly said of the daily exchanges. "But Nyles would come back the next day with a smile, wanting more.”

And wanting to be that Te’o-type impacting middle linebacker.

At the end of their few conversations between Morgan and Te’o, the current San Diego Charger would note both players chose to wear No. 5 at Notre Dame, with Te’o uttering “Good number, kid.”

Ironically, Morgan kept the number from his high school days, not because Te’o wore it, but because he wasn’t afraid of the comparisons it may invite.

But the origin of getting that number in the first place is that Morgan, as a high school sophomore, surprised the coaching staff with a push onto the varsity roster. And when jersey numbers were chosen by seniority, No. 5 is kind of what he was stuck with when it got to be his turn.

That he chose that as a symbolic reminder to never forget what goes into ascendance is an example of the humility that complements his re-emerging confidence.

“The best way is to keep a level head,” Morgan said when asked how he reminded himself of the player he really was during the tumult.

The elusive piece in the recruiting star system, the part that makes it spew surprises and busts, is the inability to measure both the want-to to be great and the circumstances that may defer it.

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

So who is Nyles Morgan?

We’re about to find out.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Linebacker Nyles Morgan runs drills during Notre Dame spring football practice on Friday inside the Loftus Center at ND. (Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ)