This preseason series highlights Notre Dame’s 2016 stars by personnel grouping and identifies who to watch on opposing teams. Today’s position group: the linebackers.
For the Irish: #5 Nyles Morgan (Jr.)
Nyles Morgan takes over the linebacker corps and is tasked with comprehending Brian VanGorder’s defensive scheme. Joe Schmidt’s graduation clears the way for Morgan’s elite talent, and the defense will look to rebound from large portions of 2015 where their red zone performance suffered.
While Morgan appeared in all 13 games last year, it was mostly in spot duty and accompanied by all-everything Jaylon Smith, who’s now departed for the Dallas Cowboys. Opposing offenses hope to capitalize on Morgan’s relative inexperience and the youth in Notre Dame’s defensive secondary, so the linebacker’s dual role in stopping run & pass efforts will be crucial to the team’s overall success.
Across the front seven, the Irish have enough experience to stack up well against most offensive rosters they’ll face. Morgan is the key cog in Notre Dame’s defensive system. If his potential turns to dependable play, the linebacker unit will perform well. Should Morgan’s inexperience lead to mental lapses, miscommunication on the field, or subpar positioning and fundamentals, the 2016 offense will be playing from behind more often than is prudent.
Preseason news implies that Morgan has grasped the linebacker role, and that mental understanding has caught up with his elite physical gifts. Let’s hope he can continue his improvement as fall camp concludes and the season commences.
For the Enemy: #46 Malik Jefferson (Soph. / Texas)
As soon as the euphoria of last year’s 38-3 Texas victory wore off, I’ve been dreading this defensive rematch with Malik Jefferson. Playing in his first collegiate game at Notre Dame and with the game out of reach for most of the second half, Jefferson still notched 9 tackles (5 solo) and 2.5 tackles for loss (a season high for him). The preseason watch lists already have tabbed him for a host of various defensive awards, and he will look to make his presence known opening weekend against Notre Dame with a large TV audience watching.
His 2015 freshman campaign was good enough to earn him a consensus spot on the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-America squad as well as Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year and an All-Big 12 honorable mention. His size and impact on the defensive side of the ball will remind Irish fans of Jaylon Smith, and Longhorn fans certainly hope Jefferson makes a sophomore leap as the defense’s leader. Much of the critique of Charlie Strong’s Texas tenure has been directed at his scoring offense, because the defense has been stout — the 2015 defense ranked 7th-best in yards allowed per play (4.68).
For a top-25 defense that returns seven starters, Texas will pose an immediate thread to the Irish offense. Win or lose, ND fans should expect to see Malik Jefferson quite a bit on the evening of Sept. 4.