Photo By Bill Panzica
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Since walking off the Los Angeles Coliseum turf last Nov. 26 to cap a miserable 4-8 campaign, Notre Dame Mike linebacker Nyles Morgan has been on a four-month whirlwind.
It began in December when the team broke recent protocol and named six captains, including Morgan, who paced the team in tackles (94) and sacks (four). Previously Notre Dame had waited until after the spring or even summer for such elections, but the urgency to immediately identify leaders for 2017 prompted the change.
“Coach [Brian] Kelly did that because he wanted to establish leadership early,” Morgan said. “I feel as if having that leadership right now, that will perpetuate [through] the season. Guys understand how things should be done. We can also learn more now than waiting until August trying to figure everything out.”
In January, Morgan and his teammates were introduced to six new assistant coaches, not including strength and conditioning coach Matt Balis.
“I remember going through the first time warm-ups, and guys were like dying,” Morgan said. “I was like, ‘Did we start yet?’ You’re like, ‘No, we didn’t start.’ He really knows how to utilize the entire weight room and really utilize the body parts we don’t use as much, especially the neck, where we never miss a day.
“The first day, it was on a Tuesday, we were just lifting and guys were puking during the lift. Guys are starting to adapt, starting to get better, starting to grow and really build the great mentality that we need. … Bayless' regimen was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I’m pretty sure a lot of guys are the same way. … Every day you kind of made somebody puke — it’s good but it’s bad, but it’s overall good.”
After playing in the 250-pound range last season, Morgan is listed at a chiseled 238 pounds. He actually began the process of slimming down in the final month of last season.
“I realized I could play at 240-245 as far as block destruction and to get around quicker,” he said. “Maybe around Miami I figured I wanted to start dropping weight, affecting the run and pass. I feel like I really move around a lot better. Now I have the opportunity to maybe slip blocks, be more in the backfield. I feel way more explosive, cover guys way better. Everything is working out so well.”
Overwhelmed often by previous defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s (2014-16) NFL schemes, Morgan was equally anxious during the winter months about how he would adapt to new coordinator Mike Elko’s alignments that proved so effective at Wake Forest while building into a top 20 defense.
“He’s just like, ‘Relax. You’re going to learn it. It’s not that hard. Keep your head on straight and everything will be fine,’ ” said Morgan of his initial contact with Elko. “So far he’s right. It’s not overly complicated. Guys get it, it makes sense to everybody. He has it where the ownership isn’t on necessarily on the linebackers. D-line had to get their calls, safeties had to get their call … all eyes on the sideline, everybody is on the same page.”
In a conversation earlier this spring with 2015-16 Irish starting quarterback DeShone Kizer, Morgan said Kizer told him no defense had him more flummoxed than Elko’s 2015 Wake Forest crew.
That year, for only the second time since 1950, Notre Dame’s offense produced more than 400 yards in each of its first nine games (432 the low). But in game 10 against the Demon Deacons, the Irish managed only 282 yards, with 98 coming on a breakaway touchdown by Josh Adams. Still, explosive Will Fuller was limited to three catches for 37 yards, and the offense managed only 21 points (plus the Irish scored on an interception return).
“Every coach has a different way of doing things,” Morgan said. “Coach Elko has a great emphasis on getting to the ball ... everybody really knowing the situation of the game — third-and-3 versus third-and-7, second-and-4 versus second-and long — knowing how to really play the game from there.
“I can’t say too much, but he makes it where things are said and done a certain way and those things kind of are going to change against the offense. They do a certain thing, [but] we still are going to be doing our thing.
“Of course, every defense has adjustments to be made, but the adjustments aren’t complicated … They kind of don’t know what’s coming. ... Things may look the same, but we know that they’re not. Sometimes I don’t think that we know that they look the same.
“Talking to DeShone about Wake Forest, he didn’t know where the pressure was going to come from.”
Morgan is learning from a third different coordinator the past nine months, but the feeling of revival far outweighs the uncertainty that occurs with change.
“It’s new terminology, but it’s nothing that we haven’t heard before — or done before, I should say,” Morgan said. “It’s pretty much like instead of seeing apples you’re seeing oranges, but you’re still slicing it the same way pretty much.”
In 2017, Morgan and Co., are aspiring to gain a larger slice of everything.
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