Notre Dame coaches “undersold” sophomore linebacker Nyles Morgan last year in an effort to conceal a significant weakness in Brian VanGorder’s defensive scheme.
Blue & Gold Illustrated’s Bryan Driskell criticized VanGorder, the Irish’s defensive coordinator, for being too faithful to scheme and sticking with Joe Schmidt – although he graded out as one of the worst linebackers last year.
“Why did you run a defense that required you to put such an inferior player on the field in order for your defense to work?” asked Driskell on a podcast he co-hosted with BGI senior editor Lou Somogyi. “Why can’t Notre Dame, in two years, find a way to get a player like Nyles Morgan on the field? And now all of a sudden we’re to believe that this spring, Nyles Morgan went from – he was so bad that he couldn’t beat out the third worst linebacker in the country. We’re supposed to believe that now all of a sudden, according to the coaches, he’s this tremendous player and go out and lead the defense. That’s the frustration.”
Somoygi said Coach Brian Kelly admitted in a recent one-on-one interview that the staff may have “undersold” Morgan and were “loyal to a fault” to Schmidt last year.
Driskell said, despite the loss of Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith, Notre Dame’s linebacker group could be better this year than last.
“The defense was built around the Mike linebacker making plays,” said Driskell. Schmidt, he said, consistently failed in that regard – noting that he both failed to sack USC’s Cody Kessler despite being sent on a blitz repeatedly and registered zero tackles (and seven missed tackles) against Clemson last year. Smith was used as an “eraser,” in Kelly’s terminology, for the errors of the both the defensive line and Schmidt in 2015.
“Now you have a player at Mike linebacker who is a more athletic, more effective, more productive player,” the analyst said of Morgan. “The key is: Can Nyles Morgan be a consistent player, avoid some of the big negatives that hurt him? But I think you’re going to see more production from the linebacking corps simply because – just by the nature of who he has – there is that weapon now at Mike linebacker that the defense can be built around. Whereas last year, when they tried to build their defense around Joe Schmidt, it just didn’t work because he wasn’t a good enough player.”
Morgan, Driskell said, will be the player who will most impact the success or failure of the defense if VanGorder’s approach remains unchanged. Somogyi noted that national experts, such as Phil Steele, had low expectations for the linebacker group. Steele slotted them as 45th best out of 128 teams entering 2016.
“This is a guy who has the physical tools. This is a guy who has been credited by Brian VanGorder, Brian Kelly, Mike Elston as working his tail off,” said Driskell. “I’ve heard great things behind the scenes about how hard he’s working, his attitude, the leadership he’s shown – all those kind of things. So I believe that position is poised to have much better production this season. Now, will Nyles Morgan take that step and become a legitimate playmaker? That remains to be seen.”
The entire podcast is worth a listen. Check it out here.