Notebook: Nyles Morgan stirs the passion on evolving Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CULVER, Ind. — Nyles Morgan was seething, unable to stomach the flashbacks the Notre Dame defense was producing that were oh-so 2016.

So after quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the Irish offense bullied Morgan and the defense consistently over a 70-yard scoring drive about two-thirds of the way through practice Saturday at Culver Academies, the senior middle linebacker pulled the other 10 starters off to the side and unloaded.

“I was just going off my heart,” Morgan, ND’s leading tackler in 2016 and leader in spitting fire so far in 2017, said.

“But I just pretty much told them, ‘Why are we fighting? We’re not fighting just to fight. We’re fighting to win. You can have all the technique and all the mechanics, but you’ve got to want to make that tackle. You’ve got to want to make that play.’

“I guess that was enough.”

On the next series, the No. 1 Irish defense pushed back. And on the next. And they played their best football when they were both most challenged and theoretically most fatigued.

Brian Kelly beamed when pressed about the scenario, because in practice No. 5 overall of training camp and No. 1 in full pads, this wasn’t an anomaly or even turning point. It, in the eighth-year head coach’s view, was another expected evolutionary step under first-year defensive coordinator Mike Elko.

And the most uncertain part of the defense coming out of spring — the defensive line — was every bit a part of the pushback as the rest of the defense.

“In the spring, I thought we dented our defensive line,” Kelly said. “Our offensive line moved them off the ball considerably when we wanted to. I think our defensive line has made great strides in the weight room physically.

“(Defensive line coach) Mike Elston has done a great job with technique. We use our hands so much better. So I think there’s a battle there, now. There’s a line of scrimmage that exists, that I didn’t think quite existed in the spring.

“The offensive line owned the line of scrimmage. Now it’s real physical, and it’s a real good battle.”

For Notre Dame to push last year’s 4-8 season into irrelevance, the defense has to be better, particularly against the run. That’s not the entire turnaround blueprint, but that’s where it has to start.

In Kelly’s first seven seasons as head coach, the Irish have ranged from meh to mediocre in rush defense, never rising above 47th nationally in the critical metric with the exception of the 2012 run to the national title game, in which they finished 11th.

Since then it’s been 70, 72, 72, and 72 out of 128 FBS teams.

“The defensive line is doing a great job,” offered senior offensive guard Quenton Nelson, one of two Irish players consistently popping up on preseason All-America teams. “They’ve been playing with a lot of intensity and playing with a lot better leverage.

“They feel stronger, harder to move. They’re more flexible, so they’re bending better and getting lower.”

The player universally cited as the one who’s made the most dramatic improvement is senior Andrew Trumbetti, who’s cross-training at both defensive end spots. The now 6-4, 263-pound Demarest, N.J., product collected a modest 26 tackles in 2016, with zero sacks and a career-low 0.5 tackles for loss.

“He’s amping it up,” Morgan chimed in.

“He looks like the guy that we recruited out of high school,” Kelly said. “He was a dominating player in high school, had an edge about him. And we did a poor job of developing him until this year. And he is at that point where he’s going to make an impact, and it’s going to be fun to watch.”

Also fun for Kelly were the meaningful reps taken by freshmen interior defensive linemen Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.

They’ve both pushed ahead of recruiting prodigy and fellow freshman Darnell Ewell and are challenging more experienced players as they try to continue to climb the depth chart.

“I think Myron and Kurt are guys that have separated themselves at the defensive tackle position,” Kelly said. “Darnell is just more developmental, learning the game, learning the nuances of the techniques.

“He’s powerfully strong, but he doesn’t have some of the techniques and things necessary right now. It’s all ‘yets.’ He’s going to have it. He just doesn’t have it yet.

“Those guys (Hinish, Tagovailoa-Amosa) have what it takes to contribute as freshmen, so we see them both playing as freshmen.”

A senior, though, is stirring the emotions of the defense. It’s something Morgan attempted to do earlier in his career but with mixed results.

“Nyles has been refining his leadership skills,” Kelly said. “I think early on Nyles’ intent of what he was saying and impact didn’t always match up.

“His intent now and how he’s impacting now are scoring very well in terms of how he’s communicating. It doesn’t surprise me. He’s taken a lot of pride in wanting to be an effective communicator.”

He certainly looks the part of a more-effective player.

Faster. More aggressive. And doing a lot more damage behind the line of scrimmage.

“Not sure if you saw, I had two sacks today,” Morgan made sure to point out.

Morgan studied film this offseason of Elko’s star middle linebacker at Wake Forest last year, Marquel Lee, now a rookie with the Oakland Raiders.

Morgan’s and Lee’s 2016 stats were pretty similar when it came to total tackles. But while Morgan had a four sacks and six tackles for loss, Lee garnered 7.5 and 20, respectively. He ranked 13th nationally in the latter figure, second among linebackers.

But it’s not just about the change in X’s and O’s from purged coordinator Brian VanGorder. It’s a change between the ears.

“(Coach Elko) wants us to change our focus from trying to do everything right to just going out there and playing for one another.” Morgan said. “Trust our scheme. Trust our fundamentals and just playing with intent.

“Guys are just letting it go and playing with the speed and passion that they have.”

And if they ever forget, Morgan is ready to press the issue with them.

Depth chart drama

Kelly made a belabored point after practice with his players that showing off the traits that the coaching and support staffs have been wearing on T-shirts this week — such as attention to detail — supersede anything else when it comes to playing time.

“We’re not going to reward talent here,” he told reporters. “I did last year, and it was a mistake. We’re going to reward those guys who have attention to detail and have great focus and play with grit. We lost a lot of games last year with guys I did not develop in the right way, and I’m going to develop them in the right way.

“And so if you’re not happy right now in terms of how much time you got, it has nothing to do with your talent. Just focus on our traits, and that will get you on the field.”

Kelly was asked about sophomore wide receiver Kevin Stepherson in that regard. ND’s second-leading returning receiver from 2016 (25 receptions, 462 yards, 5 TDs) and its leader in yards per catch (18.5) hasn’t gotten much significant work yet, as was the case last spring.

“We’re five days into this,” Kelly said. “We expect a lot of these guys that are not playing as much right now to contribute for us.”

Been there

Like freshman Darnell Ewell, senior Nyles Morgan was the highest-ranked defensive prospect in his Notre Dame recruiting class.

And like Ewell, there were more growing pains than expected in training camp.

“I tell him, ‘Just don’t let not starting right away affect you,’ ” Morgan said. “ ’Keep pushing. Keep working. Keep getting better, and it’s eventually going to happen for you.’ ”

Personnel matters

In addition to freshmen defensive linemen Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, Kelly cited several other first-year players who have grabbed his attention in the first five practices, including tight end Cole Kmet, quarterback Avery Davis and wide receivers Michael Young and Jafar Armstrong.

“They’re very intentional in what they do,” Kelly said of Young and Armstrong, neither of whom was given much chance of moving up in the pecking order of 11 wide receivers. “Very mature. They have really been impressive in the way they handle themselves on a day-to-day basis.”

• Tight end Alizé Mack had his practice truncated Saturday by what Kelly termed as a mild hamstring pull.

Well sort of.

Instead of sitting out the last half of practice, Mack insisted that team managers fire passes to him from a JUGS machine while standing on the track that surrounds Oliver Field.

• Junior safety Nick Coleman, who ended spring as ND’s No. 1 free safety, was back taking meaningful reps Saturday after very limited work Tuesday due to an ankle injury.

• Kelly said there still is no final word from the NCAA on the status of Navy transfer safety Alohi Gilman, who has petitioned for immediate eligibility for the 2017 season.

• Per new NCAA guidelines, the Irish will take Sunday off, then resume Monday with practice No. 6 of training camp. After a Tuesday practice in Culver, the Irish will move to the ND campus for the remainder of training camp.

Notre Dame senior linebacker Nyles Morgan, in practice action Saturday at Culver, Ind., is making an impact on and off the field during Notre Dame training camp. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)