Vorel: Citrus Bowl showcases next wave at Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. — Nyles Morgan cannot fly.

But he still stepped off the ledge.

Notre Dame’s senior middle linebacker glided through the rafters of Andretti Indoor Karting and Games on Friday, waving to teammate Dexter Williams as his zip line led the way.

He twisted in the air, both hands cautiously clutching the rope, as a parade of anxious 10-year-olds giggled in the line behind him. His 235 pounds securely hung in a harness tied to the track, and Williams recorded it on his phone like a proud parent at the school play.

At Notre Dame, at least, Morgan’s last ride will come on Monday.

That also goes for Greer Martini, Mike McGlinchey and several other key pieces.

While Morgan’s feet dangled and he zipped the friendly skies, McGlinchey and his fellow offensive linemen went bowling, lifting and hurling big weights, as big men often do. Martini, meanwhile, walked alongside a row of go-karts at the starting line, high-fiving each of the Irish drivers, a consummate captain in complete command.

Friday’s team outing, for No. 14 Notre Dame (9-3), was a momentary distraction — a deep breath before Monday’s Citrus Bowl game at Camping World Stadium against No. 16 LSU (9-3).

It’s the final Notre Dame football game for seven seniors and grad students with expiring eligibility — guys like Martini, McGlinchey, Morgan — and others with remaining eligibility who will leave for varying reasons. Unanimous All-America left guard Quenton Nelson, turning down a fifth year option, will join them, and quite possibly junior running back Josh Adams, too.

But, more importantly, it’s a showcase for all those coming back.

This game, in a weird way, is not about this game. It’s not about reaching double-digit wins. It’s not about bragging rights. It’s not about goodbyes.

It’s on New Year’s Day, for gosh sakes, and that should tell you something.

This game is about 2018, and the next wave of Morgans and Martinis and McGlincheys.

For starters, it’s about Brandon Wimbush — and whether the junior quarterback can continue to be a starter down the road.

“I don’t think that, all of a sudden, he’s going to become a 75-, 80-percent completion guy,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said Sunday of Wimbush, who completed 49.8 percent of his passes in 11 starts in 2017. “Those are the things he’s going to work on in the offseason.

“You do a deeper dive on the things he does well, and we’re going to feature much more of that. When you have a month to prepare, it just goes to being smart with your quarterback, because he’s got some work to do in the offseason. But he’s a dynamic runner. He’s got great traits. He’s a competitor.

“He finds a way, wills his way into making plays. Now it’s up to us as coaches to put him in a good position to succeed.”

It’s also up to young players to execute. Guys like sophomore defensive ends Daelin Hayes, Julian Okwara and Khalid Kareem, who combined for 7.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss in the first eight games this season, and 3.5 tackles for loss with zero sacks in the final four.

Are Notre Dame’s pass-rushing sophomores ascending, or just stuck in the mud?

And what about the players on the other end of Wimbush’s erratic throws? With junior wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown potentially headed for the NFL and sophomore Kevin Stepherson’s indefinite suspension likely to be made permanent, junior Miles Boykin gets to show on Monday why he deserves a more prominent role. Same with juniors C.J. Sanders and Chris Finke and freshman Michael Young.

Together, Boykin, Sanders, Finke and Young produced just 17 catches, 245 receiving yards and a single, solitary touchdown this fall. But Monday brings an opportunity not just to win a game, but to make the most of an extended tryout.

Tony Jones Jr. knows this. If Adams does indeed opt for the NFL, he’ll leave a hole the size of 3,154 career rushing yards (and counting) behind him.

If Jones and junior Dexter Williams are truly capable of bridging that gap, they’ll need to start against LSU, the nation’s No. 21-ranked rushing defense.

“This (game) is just to give coach (Kelly) confidence next season with our players that are coming back,” Jones, Notre Dame’s 225-pound sophomore running back, said last week.

This game is about freshman tight end Cole Kmet. It’s about right tackles Tommy Kraemer and Robert Hainsey. It’s about defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, cornerback Troy Pride Jr. and safeties Nick Coleman and Jalen Elliott.

It’s about the next wave at Notre Dame. The next wave of winners. The next wave of leaders.

The next wave of guys willing to take a breath, accept the challenge and step off the ledge.

Notre Dame quarterback Brandon Wimbush (7) looks to throw during ND's 49-14 rout of USC, Oct. 21 at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)