Looking beyond the quarterback position, Notre Dame is going to need Nyles Morgan to play well to counter Texas’s big and tough running backs.
As much uncertainty as there is regarding the quarterback of Notre Dame’s offense, there’s just as much when it comes to the QB of the Irish defense: “Mike” linebacker.
With the departure of Joe Schmidt, Notre Dame lost the center of its defense, the guy who directed traffic and organized everyone around him. As much as some people (OK, most people) criticized his physical ability, there was no questioning how much Brian Kelly relied on him to be a coach on the field.
And now he’s gone. In his place, Kelly, Brian VanGorder and the Irish are putting their faith in junior Nyles Morgan.
The potential is certainly there for the next great Irish middle linebacker. Morgan was one of the nation’s top recruits at his position when he came to South Bend. He even filled in for Schmidt as a true freshman, when the former walk-on went down with an injury in 2014, and he proved himself to be a very capable replacement.
But there were some regrettable lapses in judgement, including an ejection for targeting, and then Morgan pretty much disappeared last year as Schmidt, Jarrett Grace, James Onwualu and Jaylon Smith handled most of the snaps.
Now he’s back, and the question of how he will perform is even more pressing given the opponent Notre Dame is facing in Week 1: Texas.
The Longhorns are unsettled at quarterback, that’s been well-established. But they do have a pair of running backs, junior D’Onta Foreman and sophomore Chris Warren, who are primed to be among the best in the Big 12 this year. Both weigh 240 pounds or more, and both averaged more than 6.5 yards per carry last year.
With so much uncertainty under center, Charlie Strong will likely ask the other members of the backfield to step up and carry the load, and if that’s the case, then Morgan will have a tough task ahead of him.
Along the line, the Irish return some very solid depth with Jarron Jones, Isaac Rochell, Daniel Cage and Jerry Tillery. At the initial point of contact, then, Texas should have troubled getting loose. But once Foreman or Warren get past that, things get more interesting.
The only returning Irish linebacker with starting experience is James Onwualu, who is very capable and versatile, but is also a former wide receiver and safety. Going up against such big physical backs will be a challenge for him.
Morgan, on the other hand, has 15 pounds on Onwualu and is located right in the heart of the defense, where power rushers like Foreman and Warren can especially wreak havoc. He will be the one charged with preventing the Texas running game from reaching that next level, in addition to being the guy who directs traffic, to some extent.
That’s a lot to ask of a guy with only a few career starts to his name, all from two years ago. But the Irish need him to be at his best. With some shakiness behind him (who knows if Drue Tranquill will stay healthy, and Max Redfield is gone), he can effectively be regarded as Notre Dame’s last line of defense. And that’s why he’s this week’s X-Factor.