'New' Nyles Morgan hopes to infuse explosiveness, leadership into Notre Dame defense

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The new Nyles Morgan was forged in vomit and sweat.

Not that there was anything wrong with the old Nyles Morgan, the guy that committed to Notre Dame as a consensus four-star linebacker out of Crete, Ill., in 2014. That’s the guy that spent much of his first two seasons waiting patiently behind veteran middle linebacker Joe Schmidt, before starting all 12 games and leading the Irish in tackles (94) and sacks (4) last fall. That guy was a ray of sunshine amidst the merciless monsoon of a losing season.

That guy was also 250 pounds. A devastating run-stuffer? Absolutely. A sideline-to-sideline sprinter? Not exactly.

“I realized I could play at 240, 235 (pounds) as far as block destruction and things like that and also get around quicker,” the 6-foot-1 senior said last month. “I think maybe around Miami (last season) I started dropping weight and I was effective in the run and the pass.”

Still, he wasn’t a finished product. Nor, clearly, was the Irish defense, which finished 117th nationally in sacks last season and 72nd in rushing defense. And so, Notre Dame embraced the new. New defensive coordinator: Mike Elko. New linebackers coach: Clark Lea. New director of football performance: Matt Balis.

And, a few months later, the new (and improved?) Nyles Morgan.

“Balis’ (winter conditioning) regimen was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m pretty sure a lot of guys feel the same way,” Morgan said. “I’ve never seen the same guys puke more than twice in the same workout. Every day you anticipate somebody puking.

“I remember the first day, it was on a Tuesday. We just lifted and people were puking during the lift. I’m just like, ‘No one even ran, at all.’”

With winter workouts and eight spring practices behind him, Morgan is operating at 237 pounds, a full 13 pounds lighter than what he carried at times last season. He feels “way more explosive,” a trait that should pay dividends both in the pass rush and pass coverage — especially in Elko’s defense.

At Wake Forest last season, the Demon Deacons’ middle linebacker — 6-3, 240-pound senior Marquel Lee — led Elko’s group with a whopping 105 tackles, 20 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles, while adding 7.5 sacks.

In an identical 4-2-5 scheme in South Bend, Morgan is striving for similarly prolific production.

“He obviously is a physically capable player,” Lea said. “He is explosive and twitchy, so there’s a lot of things we want to carry over and just build on subtly. Our goal is to help him with movement efficiency and just finer tuning his game as a linebacker.”

The new Nyles Morgan, however, isn’t marked solely by a physical transformation. He’s a sleeker model, sure, but head coach Brian Kelly also demands a mental maturation from his senior captain. Morgan has been tasked with mastering the “intent and impact” of his leadership around the team.

Sit with him in a meeting, and Morgan’s enthusiasm is undeniable. But how can he best channel that passion to help improve the Irish defense as a whole?

“He always looks like he’s about to pop out of his chair at meetings,” Lea said. “So I respect that. We need that, and I have to set the tone for that. But he does it as good as anyone I’ve ever been around. When he wakes up in the morning, it’s never dragging. It’s never feeling sorry for himself. He knows he’s here to work towards something that he cherishes, and that’s winning a team championship. That kid is driven to that.

“He’s a thinker. He’s an alpha male type that everyone on the team respects, but he doesn’t go about things just by yelling and screaming and trying to get guys lined up that way. He teaches, and there’s a level of maturity there that’s impressive, too.”

So, all things considered, that’s the guy that sat down inside a Guglielmino Athletics Complex auditorium for a media session a few weeks back. He was noticeably lighter, his once-frizzy brown hair trimmed to a near-buzz. He was reserved, subdued … until someone asked him to define his “ceiling” for the upcoming season.

“Ceiling?” Morgan responded, baffled by the concept.

An explanation followed, but not one the new Nyles was willing to accept.

“The top level,” Morgan concluded. “There’s nothing less. I’ve never strived for anything less than being the best that I can be at all times.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame's Nyles Morgan runs a drill during practice, Friday, March 31, 2017, in South Bend. Tribune Photo/BECKY MALEWITZ