Nyles Morgan keeping an eye on Notre Dame's spring mosh pit at linebacker

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

From a distance Nyles Morgan will be watching and rooting hard.

Specifically for whom, the former Notre Dame linebacker has no idea quite yet.

Nor, definitively, does anyone else, including Irish head football coach Brian Kelly, who begins his 10th spring practice run at ND on March 2 with the short-term answer to the most pressing question being essentially the football equivalent of a mosh pit.

Kelly and defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Clark Lea will throw up to nine bodies at the task of replacing 2018 ironmen at inside linebacker, Te’von Coney and Drue Tranquill. Three more — freshmen JD Bertrand, Osita Ekwonu and presumably Marist Liufau — swell that number to 12 in June.

Some will settle in at the hybrid safety/outside linebacker role of rover. Many others could get lost in the numbers game.

“Winning a starting position at linebacker isn’t just about who’s the most physical,” said Morgan, now a rookie with the Arizona Hotshots of the pro start-up league, the Alliance of American Football.

“There’s a cerebral side that comes along with that. And that’s the hardest thing — getting down your assignment, getting the playbook down and understanding how the positions around you function. Get those things down, and that’s how you build your game and fit into the system.”

Only two of the 12 options have amassed more than 10 career tackles at the college level. They are led by grad senior Asmar Bilal, who had 50 of his 97 career tackles in 2018 as the team’s starting rover; and junior and Sweden native Jordan Genmark Heath, with most of his 32 career tackles coming on special teams or as a safety his freshman year.

The other is senior Jonathan Jones, who collected just six of his 16 career tackles last season.

What the entire group lacks in collective production, it compensates for in promise. It’ll be Lea’s job to sift through the options quickly, to determine some sort of pecking order, then try to microwave the mental side of which Morgan spoke.

“I only had coach Lea as my position coach for one year (2017),” Morgan said, “but I gained tremendous knowledge of the game and learned a lot of valuable lessons off the field, too. I think this next group of linebackers will get his message. They’re in good hands.”

So how did the Irish get to a place where there wasn’t a clear set of heir apparents after 2018, yet a glut of aspirants?

There are layers to it, starting with scheme. The Irish changed from a 3-4 to a 4-3 look in 2014 and added another strata to that by introducing the rover position in 2017. There were also players who, mostly intentionally, grew out of the linebacker position into defensive ends.

Daelin Hayes, Jamir Jones and, most recently, Ovie Oghoufo fit that profile.

But missteps and indifference on the recruiting trail before Elko and Lea arrived contributed quite a bit to this reality: Of the 22 prospects recruited to play linebacker at ND between the 2011 and the 2018 cycles, only five have started at least four career games at linebacker or rover.

They are Jaylon Smith, Morgan, Coney, Greer Martini and Bilal. And consider three of ND’s most productive inside linebackers during that run were a converted outside ‘backer (Smith), a converted safety (Tranquill) and a player who came to ND as a walk-on (2014 team MVP Joe Schmidt).

And one of its better outside linebackers, James Onwualu, came to ND as a wide receiver.

The current allocation of 12 scholarships to rover/linebacker (it was 13 before D.J. Morgan announced his pending transfer) is Kelly’s aggressive push to provide an influx of talent and schematic fit at the problem.

The decision whether to try Bilal inside this spring and leave the rover spot open is the first domino Lea and Kelly have to turn over. Genmark Heath and sophomore Bo Bauer ended the 2018 season as the No. 2 inside on paper at least.

The process of finalizing a depth chart may linger into late August.

Some of the more intriguing candidates are sophomores Shayne Simon and Jack Lamb, the latter of whom redshirted last year and battled injuries intermittently through his senior season in high school and again as an early enrollee last spring.

This year’s early enrollee at linebacker, Jack Kiser, will likely start off his career at rover then work his way inside.

“I’m confident this defense still can be really good,” Nyles Morgan offered.

Morgan himself, meanwhile, is enjoying a lifestyle in which “I don’t have to write 30 essays before I play a game,” he said with a laugh. “I wake up at 6:45 in the morning, and it’s all football all day.”

Arizona general manager Phil Savage called Morgan and offered him a roster spot after he got released at the end of a Chicago Bears minicamp last May. The two-year starter for the Irish, who was briefly in camp with the NFL’s Tennessee Titans in August, still hadn’t fully recovered from January shoulder surgery at the time.

“I played with the injury my whole senior year,” Morgan said. “We just didn’t know how bad it was. I never thought about cutting the season short and taking a medical redshirt and coming back in 2018, because I was always convinced it was going to get better.

“After the season was over, we found out I had a torn labrum. I use to wonder what my senior year would have been like if I had been 100 percent and if that would have been a clearer path to the NFL. But I’ve moved on and living in the present. I’m 110 percent now and I like the path I’m on.

“I also like where Notre Dame is headed. Them making the playoff last year is something I expected. I’m going to be keeping my eye on those linebackers. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”

ND defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Clark Lea has plenty of options at linebacker this spring, but few with experience.
Former Irish linebacker Nyles Morgan is a rookie with the AAF’s Arizona Hotshots.

Middle Linebacker

52 Bo Bauer 6-3 225 So.

45 Jonathan Jones 6-0 227 Sr.

Osita Ekwonu 6-1 220 Fr.

JD Bertrand 6-1 200 Fr.

Weakside Linebacker

2 Jordan Genmark Heath 6-1 225 Jr.

31 Jack Lamb 6-4 226 So.

40 Drew White 6-0 228 Jr.

Rover

22 Asmar Bilal 6-2 225 Sr.

33 Shayne Simon 6-3 222 So.

30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah 6-2 215 Jr.

Jack Kiser 6-1 205 Fr.

Marist Liufau 6-2 205 Fr.