It's About Time: Night moves have Notre Dame LB Nyles Morgan ascending

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Editor’s Note: The following is one of the spotlight stories featured in the ND Insider 2016 Football Preview. To buy the mag, in print or tablet form, visit ndinsider.com/buythemag. 

It’s not insomnia, even though it sort of plays like it from the outside looking in.

Nyles Morgan calls it dreaming with his eyes open, which the Notre Dame junior middle linebacker does routinely after midnight and well beyond when the rest of his teammates are actually sleeping.

He’ll take to Twitter at times to share what deep thoughts come to him after hours. If his girlfriend happens to be up, Morgan will text her for a few minutes. It’s never, though, about watching good late-night TV or playing video games.

“I’ll still be up early for a lift or whatever,” he said, shortly after completing a grueling, three-hour, team-building exercise with this teammates in June that was run by former Navy SEALs and kicked off at 6 o’clock that morning.

“It’s never really affected me. Ever. “My coaches used to get on me about it. It’s like, ‘Go to bed, Morgan.’ And I can’t go to sleep. I’m definitely a late-night guy. I can’t help it. I don’t know. It’s just who I am.”

Who Nyles Morgan is, beyond the irregular sleep patterns, changed in those late nights the past couple of years.

That is, when a freshman season rife with growing pains and daily dressing downs from defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder gave way to limited playing time as a sophomore in 2015 and plenty of opportunity to second-guess either his fit at Notre Dame or whether the top-rated defensive recruit in ND’s 2014 recruiting class really could ever step up into the Manti Te’o-Jaylon Smith linebacker lineage.

And Morgan did ask himself those questions, sitting alone in the darkness, then quickly dismissed any answers that didn’t include perseverance and faith and dreaming with his eyes open and doing something in the late-night hours to drag it all into reality.

His new reality.

“I think he’s going to have an incredibly successful season,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered of the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder from Crete, Ill. “I think he’s a breakout-type player. He just needs to make one play — one big play — and he is off to the races.

“He’s our toughest player. He’s our grittiest player. I feel terrible that we had to put him in the grinder as a freshman, and then he was in tough situation with Joe (Schmidt) last year. But I see greatness for him.”

Greatness, or at least the possibility of it, because in the still of the night, Morgan got on the iPad and watched film. Film of his mistakes. Film of what Joe Schmidt — the player blocking him on the depth chart last year — was doing right.

Film of Seattle Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, a player to whom Morgan is sometimes compared. Film of former NFL great Patrick Willis, a seven-time Pro Bowler in a brilliant eight-year NFL career and the player to whom Morgan would love to be compared.

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

But it was more than that. It was study of how the defensive linemen in front of him moved, what the other linebackers were supposed to be pre- and post-snap, how the safeties and corners should align.

He studied opponents and offensive formations. He’d share info and ideas and asked questions to fellow night owl/film junkie Adam Lewandowski, Morgan’s defensive coordinator and position coach when the linebacker was a senior at burgeoning national prep power Crete-Monee High in south suburban Chicago.

In the light of day, Morgan summoned Notre Dame’s physically most imposing offensive lineman, 6-foot-5, 325-pound Quenton Nelson, who looks like a garage with arms and a snarl. The objective was to work on Morgan’s hand placement.

“We came out and we just hit all day — shoulder pads, helmets — and we hit until I got my hands right,” Morgan said. “I did everything I could. I just could not find a way to quit. That pretty much was what my mentality was like.”

“Nyles does not want to be average,” said Lewandowski, now the head coach at Andrew High in Tinley

Park, Ill. “He wants to be great. And he knows it’s going to take hard work. It’s not just something you wake up with.”

The sort of disconnect was that Morgan was a film rat before he even set foot on the Notre Dame campus, even before Lewandowski and he crossed paths for the first time. And well before the culture shock punched him in the gut over and over that freshman season.

He was fast, physical and coveted by Alabama and most of the rest of the SEC, Miami and Michigan, Ohio State and Oklahoma, USC and UCLA just months before.

He was seemingly just what Notre Dame needed after some swings and misses at the inside linebacker positions in recruiting and the 11th-hour defection of five-star linebacker recruit Alex Anzalone to Florida in the cycle prior to Morgan’s.

He projected as a turn-key prospect. No renovation needed.

“I met him in the weight room in the offseason prior to starting in the summer,” Lewandowski said. “My initial first impression of him was that he was very serious about his football and his career and very serious about studying the game.

“He was very serious about wanting to know scheme, what we were going to be doing, what his role would be. He was right away very intentional about the intellectual side. He was not a young man who did things frivolously in terms of his training or his preparation at all.”

But VanGorder’s defense was so nuanced, Morgan had to be patient and persistent above all. And willing to wait until all the tumblers lined up.

Like this past spring.

“Once Nyles became the guy,” ND linebackers coach Mike Elston said, “and Joe left the campus and he was done, and Nyles wasn’t looking over his shoulder when he was out there, that’s when I saw a different demeanor from him and a different confidence and a different swagger.

“He knew, ‘This is my deal. And I’m going to take it. I’m not going to relinquish it to anybody.’ That’s when I saw a major difference.”

The influential voices around Morgan backed up his instinct, to stay and fight through things and never consider a transfer.

“He has the intellectual capacity to learn anything,” Lewandowski said. “That is never going to be the issue at all. I think probably why he wasn’t on the field right away is that in VanGorder’s system and in that position, I think it was just a lot of moving parts and just catching up with speed of the game, the strength of the offensive line.”

The one adjustment Morgan never had to make, according to those around him, was with regard to his ego. No wake-up call was needed, but he had the sense that one was coming anyway.

“Character is who we are, good times and bad,” Lewandowski said. “And he has a very high strong integrity and rich character. And he’s not going to be a man who allows adversity to stop him.

“He knows that there will be adversity, and so he prepares for that. He just works through it. I’m not surprised that when he had adversity that he dealt with it the way that he did — upright, positive with his chin held high. Just standing upright through all that.

“I knew he’d weather any storm that comes his way.”

Linebacker Nyles Morgan grabs a drink between drills during Notre Dame spring football practice on Friday, April 1, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

■■■

In the quiet moments — when Morgan runs out of late-night film, attention span or both — his mind often takes him backward through time.

He often settles on memories of turning points and watershed moments. And in almost every one of them, his father, Thomas, is in the frame.

Thomas Morgan is a high school principal, who doesn’t turn that switch off when he leaves the office. His passion for learning, for discipline, for making empowering decisions was born out of being the youngest of nine children in a household of modest means.

“I saw the learning disparity between my siblings and those who made the decision to stay in education and those who opted for something different,” he said. “Education became something I wanted to do as a result of what was happening with my family. That’s pretty much how I’d commit to being a lifelong learner.”

Nyles made the same commitment, sometimes involuntarily in his middle school and high school years, though. One day when Thomas came home from work and found out Nyles had forgotten his chores, he got back in the car, drove to Crete-Monee High and pulled his son off the football field during practice.

“Coach didn’t know what was going on,” Thomas said. “I told him, ‘Well, yeah, he didn’t take care of something at my house. He knows what to do.’ He packed his stuff, left embarrassed.

“Be that as it may, he came back, apologized to the coach. He had to sit out a couple of practices and a game. That’s where the mental part of playing sports started to come into focus for him. When you don’t take care of things on the front end, there are going to be some things that are going to impact your team. It’s going to impact everything you care about.

“That’s when we started talking about leadership.”

Linebacker Nyles Morgan runs drills during Notre Dame spring football practice on Friday, April 1, 2016, inside the Guglielmino Athletics Complex at Notre Dame in South Bend. Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ

Long before that, Thomas had Nyles reading the works of James Allen, a British philosophical writer and poet, who lived from 1864-1912 but whose works have lived on and impacted many in the years since.

“He wrote ‘As a Man Thinketh,’” Thomas said. “He basically gives a scenario about making good decisions that will strengthen your character. And so after I preached that into his system, he literally memorized it.

“Then he went out and played football for the first time, and he really soared. His mother (Velma Sells) and I were just really shocked. But we shouldn’t have been.”

Physical toughness was built at 5:30 in the morning through Ironman runs that Thomas, a former college linebacker himself at Western Illinois, would run right alongside his son.

“My dad is an amazing person,” Nyles said. “He’s the first one to tell me to never stop getting better. To this day he’s still trying to improve different aspects of his life. Somehow, some way — whether it’s mentally, spiritually, physically emotionally — my dad is always getting better.

“And I love that about him. That’s where I get my drive from. That’s why I am the way I am. He’s not all business. He cracks jokes, this and that, but when it’s something serious, you know not to cross him, because he’s not playing.

“He knew life can get tough. And he wanted to prepare me for those tough times when things got rough. He never wanted me to be in a position where I wouldn’t know what to do, how to fix it, how to handle things.”

And that day came for Nyles Morgan in August training camp as a freshman in 2014 and the next day and the next. VanGorder’s tough love was as relentless as Morgan’s belief he could transcend it.

“The first year all he did was yell at me,” Morgan said. “Everything I did was wrong. He was trying to break me down. He called it, ‘Putting me through the gauntlet.’

“That was his goal, to break you down. He breaks you down, and then he builds you back up so that you know more about football than you ever did before.”

Meanwhile, Joe Schmidt had ascended from walk-on backup to scholarship cult hero that season, with Morgan the understudy. In game eight of that 2014 season, though, Schmidt suffered a season-ending leg injury against Navy, and Morgan defaulted to the top of the depth chart.

When it was all in the rear-view mirror, Schmidt was named team MVP for 7½ games of service. Morgan, meanwhile, had nudged his way into a tie for eighth place on the all-time tackles list for Notre Dame freshmen, with 47, sharing that spot with Kory Minor and Steve Niehaus.

He garnered freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News, but VanGorder’s decibels and sharp criticism persisted.

Notre Dame’s Nyles Morgan hits Louisville QB Reggie Bonnafon during the Notre Dame-Louisville NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN

“That was a regular occurrence day in and day out,” Kelly confirmed, “and it would make most young men weep. But Nyles would come back the next day with a smile, wanting more.”

“I told Nyles, whatever he’s got, you’ve had worse,” Thomas told his son of VanGorder.

The younger Morgan confessed his majoring in psychology has come in handy in helping him understand his relationship with ND’s third-year defensive coordinator.

“It’s been changing, but it’s a good change,” Morgan said. “I’ll give him his props 100 percent. I know so much more about football than I thought existed. I thank him for that. I really do, because now I see what he was doing.

“One day we had a one-on-one talk. He said, ‘Every day I see you working and I see you getting better.’ That gave me the confidence to push to where I am now. Now I’m out of the gauntlet. I’ve been through the trial of fire. And now it’s time for me to show what I’ve got.

“To take the pain of what I’ve been through and to use it out on the field. I’ve learned so much. Now it’s time to apply what I’ve learned.”

■■■

It is not so late at night on a day in late April when Morgan becomes frantic that he can’t locate a bowling alley in the Fort Wayne, Ind., area.

Close friend and fellow Irish linebacker Te’von Coney is in the car with him. And all they want to do is be on time for Jaylon Smith’s draft party at a facility that’s not normally associated with draft parties.

Smith was a sure-fire top-10 NFL draft pick, perhaps even the first overall pick behind the two elite quarterbacks who went 1-2, until a freak knee injury suffered in ND’s Jan. 1 Fiesta Bowl loss to Ohio State muddled his draft status to the point where some analysts speculated whether the All-America linebacker would get drafted at all.

That was hardly the consensus, though, and Morgan didn’t want to miss the moment if happened. Smith did slip into the second round, but with the third pick of that round, he came off the board and into euphoria.

“The injury was so sad,” Morgan said. “It was like crushing, just to see a guy like him do the phenomenal things he did. BVG always used to say Jaylon was the greatest he’s ever seen, and when you watch film, he kind of defies the laws of physics.

“I mean, I cried when the injury happened. And a lot of my family in the stands cried, too. That’s why we couldn’t miss the moment he got drafted. He meant so much to me. When I was struggling, he told me every day, ‘Your day will come. And when it does, the sky’s the limit.’ ”

The moment the two linebackers walked into the bowling alley, the phone rang, with Dallas on the line.

“We ran to the front of the line, skipped over everybody and we’re like, ‘We made it, bro.’” Morgan said with a laugh. “Jaylon was crying. I’ve never been so happy for another human being.”

They celebrated by, of course, bowling. Yet in the midst of Smith’s shining moment, he pulled Morgan aside and passed the baton.

“He said, ‘Just know that this team will be yours, very, very soon, and I need you to be ready for it now,’ ” Morgan related. “ ‘I need you to be on your game. I need you to be on other people’s games too.’ He always pushed me being a leader.”

So did Schmidt, whose own productivity fell off in 2015 but not his effort.

“Even though I was playing behind him, people assumed we had bad blood,” Morgan said, “but I loved Joe. If I had a question, Joe would answer it anytime.”

The question Morgan will begin to answer for himself come Sept. 4 in the season opener at Austin, Texas, is: Can the linebacker be the kind of transformative player that can help coax ND’s 2015 national standing in total defense (45) and rushing defense (72) to those of a team that profiles as a serious playoff contender?

“The 2012 team was like that,” Morgan said of the first ND team in two decades to be in the national title picture in January. “They shocked people in a good way. And I’ve watched a lot of tape of them. They were a bunch of monsters.

“They were bigger, bulkier guys. They ran a 3-4, so they needed guys like that. Our defense is way different. You’ve got to be fast, agile, mobile and hostile. They had to play a little more conservative in the 2012 defense. VanGorder is like, ‘Forget that, go get ‘em. We’re coming for everybody.’

“He’s got all these different types of exotic blitzes, where you’ve got guys coming from left, right, up, down. It’s challenging, but I like it. It gives guys opportunities to make plays.”

And the opportunity perhaps for Morgan to keep someone else up late at night — opposing offensive coordinators.

“I don’t even think at this stage that he’s even done growing,” Lewandowski said. “Physiologically speaking, he still has a ton of room to grow.

“Mentally, I speak to him about X’s and O’s these last few years and his intuitiveness, his knowledge of the game itself. The history of the game, the way the game has moved and progressed and changed, the scheme, the playbooks, what other teams are doing at the college and the professional level has all just grown so much.

“He’s so much stronger and faster now from a physical standpoint. He’s one of those truly special players.”

And he wants to pull others along with him.

“I don’t want to have to live off of anyone else’s legacy,” Morgan said. “From last year, the previous year. I want a whole new era for this team. And a lot of guys feel the same way.

“I kind of put it my Twitter Bio, ‘New Era ND.’ I’ve been talking around, and everybody kind of feels like they want to make their own work.

“Now some things don’t change. Work ethic will always be the same. No excuses. We all have got to push through the same amount of pain. But I want a different type of vibe, that when we hit the field, people are going to see a defense that’s so in sync that we’re really all one.

“If everybody is on the same page, then the sky is really the limit.” ■

Notre Dame junior linebacker Nyles Morgan is set for a breakout season for the Irish in 2016. (ND Insider photo illustration/ALLISON DALE)

The 2016 ND Insider Notre Dame Football Preview, at retail outlets now, sets up head coach Brian Kelly’s seventh season with the Irish football team.

The season preview and keepsake from the staff of the South Bend Tribune provides the context, analysis and behind-the-scenes dynamics of a team with high expectations in 100 high-quality, all-color pages.

• Read a how-to guide for running a successful quarterback competition in which Malik Zaire and DeShone Kizer are firmly entrenched.

• Learn how wide receiver Torii Hunter Jr. is making a name for himself and stepping out of the shadows of his famous father.

• Spend time with Nyles Morgan, who has been putting in extra hours to transform himself into Notre Dame’s next middle linebacker.

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