Notre Dame LB Nyles Morgan is the calm amid defensive storm
SOUTH BEND — Nyles Morgan’s deadpan delivery was the only thing that saved his plea to the media from being misinterpreted as a punch line.
With an eye on the clock, as he was incessantly pressed to dissect Notre Dame’s chronic defensive woes and the hidden virtues of Irish defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s uber-scrutinized scheme, Morgan eventually let everyone know earlier this week that he needed to hit the ejector seat.
To study for … a psychology test.
Given the events of the past three weeks for the Irish, let alone the past three years for Morgan personally, the junior middle linebacker would seemingly be in position to ace that test with his eyes closed.
The once-resilient freshmen, who survived a public and trying rite of passage in 2014 only to become a seldom-used understudy last season, has evolved into the calm in the storm of contention drummed up by a 1-2 start for the Irish football team as it heads into Saturday’s home matchup (3:30 p.m. EDT; NBC-TV) with Duke (1-2).
A defense ranked no higher than 89th among the 128 FBS teams in any significant statistical category this week will look to find traction against a Duke offense that ranks 94th nationally in scoring, despite a 49-point, first-half scoring spree in the Blue Devils’ season-opening rout of FCS member North Carolina Central.
“What I’m doing is I’m trying to make sure that guys understand we’re not a bad football team, a bad defense,” Morgan said. “Just a few plays here and there (are going amiss). Just keep pushing and just keep getting better.”
Head coach Brian Kelly deviated from his normal offense-centric time commitment during practices and meetings this week and infused himself into the defensive problem solving. That included more periods of “thudding” — as Kelly terms it — and a remedial course in defensive fundamentals that were so lacking in last Saturday night’s 36-28 loss to Michigan State.
“It was very helpful, because it really makes you tough, because you’ve got to go through it,” Morgan said of the change of practice tenor. “You can’t just give up. So it really makes guys get to the point where they’re really uncomfortable and see how far they can go — just like in a game.
“In a game, you’re uncomfortable, you’re tired, you’re beat up. And you see how far you can really push yourself.”
Morgan’s push from overwhelmed freshman to a team leader as a junior comes with a statistical congruence. He’s by far ND’s leading tackler through three games (27) and has executed the pre-snap duties that predecessor Joe Schmidt was known for the past two seasons under VanGorder.
“He makes great front checks,” Kelly offered. “He’s doing a really good job of running our front seven.”
And if ND’s defense is able to flip its script, or at least evolve in a progressive direction, it’s likely going to start with Morgan.
That starts with knowing where his own blind spots reside and addressing them — becoming more effective in pass coverage and blitzing. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Morgan said middle linebacker, by the very way it’s designed in ND’s scheme, puts him in a leadership position, but that he needs to do more.
And it includes setting an example on how to play the game. To bring others along with him, though, requires some psychology, which is Morgan’s academic major at ND.
“You’ve got to know where their head is,” he said of his teammates, “because you’ve been there and know what to say and when to say it. If a coach is getting on a guy real hard, you’ve got to know what to tell them, so he’s back the next day, ready to go.”
Morgan, like Kelly, is particularly encouraged by the development of freshmen such as defensive ends Daelin Hayes and Julian Okwara and nickel Julian Love, all of whom show up in ND’s niche speed package.
It, like ND’s base defense and its other sub packages, has yet to produce a sack, however. The good news is Duke, at 97th nationally in sacks allowed, is tied with Syracuse and Navy as the worst teams on the Irish schedule in terms of protecting their passer.
But that speed package has coaxed punting situations, and Hayes’ tip of a Tyler O’Connor pass last Saturday night resulted in an interception for freshman free safety Devin Studstill, the first of his career.
“I think by midseason,” Morgan said of when the glimpses of potential of those freshman start to congeal into something more potent and consistent. “Those guys have a lot of juice. I see it every day in practice, the way they work, the reads, the technique.
“Being a freshman is hard. Trust me, I know. But once it clicks, it clicks, and you go from there.”
Duke has its own youth movement going on, at quarterback. Redshirt freshman Daniel Jones is tops among freshmen nationally in total offense per game (297.3 yards) and just ahead of four phenoms — Florida State’s Deondre Francois, Texas’ Shane Buechele, Alabama’s Jalen Hurts and Georgia’s Jacob Eason.
But his learning curve has mitigated those numbers, with Duke having scored a grand total of 27 points combined the past two mistake-filled weeks, against Wake Forest and Northwestern.
VanGorder’s scheme is purported to rattle quarterbacks, especially inexperienced ones, but that was not the case with Buechele in ND’s season-opening 50-47, double-overtime loss at Texas on Sept. 4.
A problem area has been former All-American Jaylon Smith’s old position, weakside linebacker. Kelly said Thursday night that sophomore Te’von Coney would get the start Saturday against Duke, with junior Greer Martini seeing significant playing time as well.
Sophomore Asmar Bilal is the third part of that rotation that VanGorder has employed to eventually find a long-term answer at the position.
One of the perplexing aspects of the Irish having to search for so many in-season answers is why those weren’t identified and solved in the spring and August training camp.
“You can’t predict what’s going to happen in the season, based on the spring and the summertime,” Morgan said. “You can, but you can’t. It’s our offense. We know what they’re going to do all the time. We’ve seen them three, four — some guys five years.
“In the game, every team is different. You have to find the adjustments, make the right calls, make the right checks and just go from there with each new team.”
With ND coming off its 12th game of 500 yards or more given up in VanGorder’s 29-game run, it again pushes the question that has shadowed the defensive coordinator since his arrival at ND after the 2013 season:
Is this scheme right for Notre Dame?
Morgan says he likes its NFL roots, likes the fact that it requires players to know how the positions around them work — not just their own, though he admits it sometimes feels like cramming for a test, especially for the younger players.
“The thing I like the most is it sets up guys to make plays,” he said. “But you’ve got to make them.”