Confident Notre Dame LB Nyles Morgan makes tackles, metaphors

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Here sits Notre Dame’s starting middle linebacker, and a metaphor machine.

It’s a humid, sticky Wednesday trapped in an August heat wave, and Irish football players are seated at makeshift tables inside the Loftus Center while rain pounds the pavement outside. This particular media session is reserved for the team’s primary contributors, for the core group charged with leading the Irish to prosperity — namely, the College Football Playoff — in 2016.

Nyles Morgan is here, and why shouldn’t he be? The 6-foot-1, 245-pound junior is the voice of Notre Dame’s defense, a hard-charging slab of concrete with a shock of spiky hair. Last season, Morgan played only sparingly behind graduate student captain Joe Schmidt, collecting 17 special teams tackles (and a thick layer of dust at the end of the bench).

Now, it’s his defense. It’s his time.

How does that feel?

“It’s like someone giving you the keys to a new mansion. It’s like, ‘Wow, this? All this is mine?” Morgan looks around him, his eyes lighting up, lost in the vision. He points out the various rooms, trying to help you see. “That’s my bathroom, too? A golden bathroom? Wow.’ That’s what it feels like.”

A mansion is more than a golden bathroom, though. It’s more than room after room after room, more than indoor pools, more than winding staircases, more than hanging chandeliers, more than personal movie theaters.

It’s a responsibility, too. Like Notre Dame’s defense, it must be cared for and maintained.

“You’ve got a mansion,” Morgan continues. “You’ve got to take care of it. You’ve got to pay the bills now. You’ve got to do this, do that. But it’s something you want to have. It’s not something you want to shy away from.”

As reporters mill around him, Morgan is not shying away. Not after he started four games in his freshman season, just to relinquish the job to the returning Schmidt. Not after briefly basking in the South Bend spotlight, only to have the room go suddenly dark.

“Say you come in and somebody’s starving you, starving you, starving you, and then they feed you a steak one day,” Morgan says, busting out another metaphor. “It’s like someone just set you free. You’re hungry, ready to go, ready to play, ready to just get out there.”

Ready to take advantage of your opportunity. That’s what Morgan is planning to do.

“I just knew that my time was coming, and when it did come, I had to be ready. It was important,” Morgan says. “It was like someone slipped you a piece of gold, and said, ‘Now when this piece comes, you better snatch it. You get one piece. That’s it.’ I was definitely ready.”

For Morgan, the proof is in the practice. The junior linebacker from Crete, Ill., has continued to surge throughout the spring and summer, solidifying a linebacker corps which must replace stalwarts Schmidt and Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith.

The goal is not just to excel, but to set a winning example.

“We need a bunch of guys who are smart, tough and just savage,” Morgan says. “I’ll be proud to see, if I’m getting blocked, that my whole team is just ravaging the quarterback. I’ll be like, ‘Yes!’ on the way to the ground. That’s what I love to see, and I know a lot of guys feel the same way.

“If you’re out there busting heads, doing your job, you can’t lose.”

Notre Dame’s coaching staff certainly hopes that attitude carries over to the season opener at Texas on Sept. 4. And while question marks abound, the Irish appear set at middle linebacker.

“He just keeps getting better,” defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder says. “It was very difficult for Nyles. He had a lot of football thrown at him (in his freshman season). He wasn’t ready for that, and then he was forced to play.

“So his ability to persevere … he’s mentally tough. Part of his mental toughness coming into the game is to realize where he was, where he is and where he can go — what’s still out there for him.”

As his junior season fast approaches, there’s no telling what’s out there for Nyles Morgan. The tackles will likely come, as will the sacks and turnovers. After those roll in, the awards could be next. And maybe, just maybe, his imagination will come to life.

How about a national championship trophy to display on the counter in the golden bathroom?

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame Nyles Morgan lines up for the Blue team during the Notre Dame Blue-Gold Spring football game on Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN