Roots of Notre Dame football's ascent started with the path of most resistance

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — In the coldest, bleakest days of winter, when the sting of a 4-8 bottom line was still raw and unrelenting, Nyles Morgan was asked to step into yet another nightmare.

And fix it.

In one of his first steps toward aspiring reinvention after hiring a new defensive coordinator, Wake Forest’s Mike Elko, Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly divided his squad into 13-player accountability groups in January.

And Kelly handed Morgan, his senior middle linebacker and captain, the 12 players he believed would put up the most resistance in the graded categories: Strength, Speed, Agility, Discipline, Academics and Mat Drills/Conditioning.

They didn’t disappoint.

Morgan and the 13th-ranked Irish (5-1) now find themselves in a compelling Saturday night matchup (7:30 EDT; NBC) against No. 11 USC (6-1). A game saturated in playoff implications had its roots in those trying mid-winter moments when Morgan took a leap of faith, then prodded the others to at least dip their toes in the new rhetoric.

“Resistance comes in all forms, and I wasn’t perfect either,” said Morgan, ND’s leading tackler (44) on the nation’s No. 15 scoring defense.

“But we all had to understand what, really, accountability means and how to really push through adversity, whether it’s on the field or off the field. When you’re supposed to be somewhere at a certain time, when you’re supposed to get your something turned in at a certain time.

“We had some setbacks, but from each setback we learned. We tried not to make the same mistake twice.”

They never talked of dreams or what all of the hard work could turn into. They only talked about the work and getting it right.

“We made a silent oath that (when the season came around), we would just focus on every game that was right in front of us,” Morgan said. “Never the game behind us, never the game ahead of the one we were playing.

“And that’s what we’ve been doing so far. We look up at where we are today and the message is still the same.”

Kelly knew Morgan was, at the very least, resilient enough to handle the pushback. As a freshman, the Crete, Ill, product and ND’s highest-rated defensive recruit in the 2014 class, was screamed at so loudly by former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, Kelly could hear it clearly from a different meeting room.

“That was a regular occurrence day in and day out, and it would make most young men weep,” Kelly said back in 2014, shortly after Morgan was pushed into the starting lineup due to an injury. “But Nyles would come back the next day with a smile, wanting more.”

The turning point may very well have been Morgan’s first USC game, a 49-14 manhandling from an unranked Trojans squad in L.A., in November of 2014.

Morgan had to sit out the first half of the game because of a targeting infraction he was flagged for in the previous Irish game against Louisville.

USC went after Morgan once he entered the game in the second half, and he responded with 11 tackles in the final 30 minutes. Not all of them at the point of attack. Not all of them perfect. But it was 11 instances of production, on pace for 22 had he played a full game.

“It was hard coming in as a freshman with our old scheme,” Morgan said. “It came straight from the NFL. There was so much terminology that I didn’t know.

“There’s a lot of pressure on the (middle) linebacker to make all the checks, all the calls, all of this, all of that. And my learning curve was really, really steep. As that game went along, I kept learning and kept trying to learn more about the defense and football itself.”

Despite, not having made his first start until Nov. 8 — a week after 2014 team MVP Joe Schmidt’s season-ending injury — Morgan finished with 47 tackles. That’s tied for eighth most ever, with Kory Minor and Steve Niehaus, in school history for a freshman.

He made both the Football Writers’ and The Sporting News’ Freshman All-America teams, but still had to win over VanGorder in that offseason. He did not. Morgan sat behind a physically compromised Schmidt in 2015, and garnered just 13 tackles in a reserve role that season.

In 2016, he started the entire season and made a team-leading 94 tackles on a transitioning defense that saw its coordinator purged four games into that season.

ND heads into Saturday night’s showdown 86 spots higher in the national rankings in scoring defense than it did the day VanGorder was fired (101st); at 48th, 55 spots higher in total defense; at 27th, 84 spots higher in pass-efficiency defense; and at 42nd, 54 spots higher in rushing defense.

And next up is by far the most prolific passing offense the Irish will see all season, and quite possibly the best overall offense if the Trojans could get out of their own way.

Only three teams in the 129-squad FBS have committed more turnovers than USC’s 16 and the Trojans’ 64 penalty yards per game is more than 92 teams are averaging.

In a game in which the Irish defense needs to find a new level collectively, Kelly is counting on Morgan — again — to set the template.

“I think if we pick at it, there’s a (next) level for everybody,” Kelly said Thursday night after practice. “I think we’d love to see him continue to grow in the passing game. He’s been really good with his run fits this year.

“It’s been a good year for him. He’s really conditioned himself well physically, (he’s) really strong. This is his best year since I’ve been with him. He’s on the field on every down.”

And the mental toughness he brings from the dark days of winter have shown up as the perfect complement to Elko’s schematic upgrade.

Morgan took an instant liking to the new X’s and O’s that seemed to accentuate the Irish players’ strengths. But he needed more to fully believe.

“I think when I was actually fully sold was during the Temple game,” Morgan said of ND’s Sept. 2 season-opening, 49-16 rout, “because everything looked so good in practice and everything looked so good in the spring and everything looked so good in fall camp.

“But you never know until you’re wearing that uniform (in a game), and there are no re-dos. So that first game showed a lot. Everything (Elko) was preaching and saying, it worked.”

Kelly, meanwhile, in the summer shuffled the accountability teams, and Morgan’s new group began to and still is consistently finishing first.

“We rewarded him,” Kelly said. “I think honestly it really helped to shape him. You know, emotional stability is important for leaders, so they’re not up and down. He was a bit of an up-and-down guy at times.

“He’s been so stable in terms of every single day you know what you’re going to get from Nyles Morgan, and I think putting him in those leadership roles, where he had to hold others accountable, really helped him quite a bit.”

And so now he pushes harder, and no one harder than himself.

“I feel like there’s a whole bunch more out there for me,” Morgan said. “We’ve got six games left. You just never know when it’s going to come, and I’m just waiting for the opportunity. Waiting to seize it.”

Notre Dame linebacker Nyles Morgan (center) has made a major impact on and off the field for the 13th-ranked Irish. (Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)