I'm not going to lie to you, I'm worried about the inside linebacker position next year. Like all Irish fans, I hope that Jarrett Grace can return to full health from a very serious injury, but it's far from certain if he'll be 100% next season. With our most experienced inside linebacker questionable for 2014, it makes sense to examine the rest of the depth chart.
Hmmm.. how do I put this politely? (You know, in Canadian terms!) The depth chart at inside linebacker is... uhhh... unproven. Fortunately, National Signing Day has provided us with hope that a saviour will emerge through a letter of intent sent via fax machine (the modern day equivalent of stone tablets). Nyles Morgan, a 6'2" 223 lb linebacker from Crete Illinois, is widely considered to be a prime candidate to play the role of Moses at the inside linebacker position. Let's go to the film room and see if Morgan can part the Red Sea for the Notre Dame defense in 2014.
Playing the Run
Put simply, Nyles Morgan plays the run very aggressively.
If you are going to play middle linebacker in an even front, this is a read you must be able to make. If you can't make this read, you can't play middle linebacker. As soon as the center down blocks, the best, most aggressive linebackers attack right off his hip (blue arrow) and find the ball carrier. Linebackers who tend to be conservative (or have been coached to play more conservatively) will check the A gap (center-guard gap) and then follow the red arrow.
MORGAN ATTACKS! THIS IS THE WAY YOU PLAY MIDDLE LINEBACKER. DON'T BE CONSERVATIVE. ATTACK. MAKE A PLAY. YES I'M YELLING, WE'RE TALKING ABOUT LINEBACKERS. I'M FIRED UP!
Nyles Morgan making the tackle. Note the offensive lineman on his back.
This will end up being a running play to the outside (in the direction of the black arrow). An obvious lane opens up inside and Morgan (blue arrow) is faced with a choice. Follow the red arrow to the perimeter (the safe choice) or follow the yellow arrow and attack (the aggressive choice).
The offensive player is just about to get the ball on a toss play (black circle). Nyles Morgan (blue arrow) makes the aggressive choice and is already in a full sprint on his way to the ball carrier.
This screen shot is a thing of beauty. Morgan shows a relentless desire to get to the ball carrier as quickly as humanly possible.
Aggressive angle. Tackle made. Well done.
Run defense summary
I absolutely love the way Nyles Morgan plays the run. Three things really jumped out at me as I watched the film.
- He knows how to read offensive plays. Some people will say he has great instincts, I'm not a big fan of that statement. It suggests that people are born with the ability to diagnose run plays. Reading offensive plays is a skill that is developed through film study and repetition in practice. It's pretty clear that Morgan has been well coached and has worked hard to develop his ability to diagnose plays.
- He understands angles. Morgan does an excellent job of taking the most direct route to make a tackle. He doesn't take the safe route, he takes the fastest route.
- He's very aggressive. As soon as he sees where the play is going, he accelerates. There is no hesitation in his game.
Playing the Pass
Let's take a look at Nyles Morgan in pass coverage. As you will see this is an area he needs to work on before the start of the season.
A straight drop back from the quarterback means that Morgan should be looking to get depth on his pass drop (blue arrow). Instead he takes a very flat angle following the red arrow.
Morgan started about where the yellow star is. As you can see he hasn't gained much depth relative to the 20 yard line. To be effective at Notre Dame, Morgan is going to need to learn to get much deeper when he drops into coverage.
Again we'll see the same lack of depth problem in this play. Morgan will start with his heels roughly on the 25 yard line and end at about the same depth.
Morgan doesn't drop on this play, he simply drifts to the outside. Admittedly he does get an interception, however he won't be able to get away with this at the next level.
Pass defense summary
Nyles Morgan will need to work on his pass coverage skills in the coming months. In particular, getting depth consistently when he drops into coverage. To be fair, when I watched the film I did find examples of him getting better depth in some instances. However, this wasn't consistent. He has a tendency to get locked on to the quarterback and shuffle laterally instead of getting to his zone. This is something he will need to improve before the start of the season.
Will he start in 2014?
That is the million dollar question. Keep in mind there are a lot of variables that go into answering this question. Will Jarrett Grace be healthy? Do other inside linebackers get injured? Can Morgan adjust to the speed of the game? Can he manage the responsibilities of being a student-athlete at Notre Dame?
Unfortunately, I'm not the 7th son of a 7th son, so I don't have clairvoyant powers. All I can do is make predictions based on what I have seen on film. On this basis, I feel Nyles Morgan won't be a starter for the Irish defense next year.
Don't' get me wrong, I think he has immense talent and I believe he will be a very good player for Notre Dame. I just don't think he is ready to start, at least not early in the year. I suspect we will see the staff bring him along slowly, playing him on special teams and in specific situations on defense (similar to how Tarean Folston was used on offense last year). As the year progresses and he adjusts to the college game, I anticipate he will see more playing time (of course this could change in a heartbeat if someone gets injured). Here are some things to watch for in terms of Morgan's development:
- Tackling - As I mentioned in the article, Morgan takes very aggressive angles when pursuing ball carriers. At the high school level his superior athleticism meant that he didn't have to breakdown very often and could essentially run through almost every tackle. At the college level he won't be able to do this. If he doesn't breakdown he is going to miss a lot of tackles. This will be a key for Morgan, if he can adapt his tackling technique his playing time will expand as the year progresses. If he can't, it will shrink.
- Aggression - When Nyles Morgan makes a read, he is decisive. He attacks. A smart offensive coordinator will take advantage of this by calling plays that punish aggression. For example, he might call play action passes, misdirection plays, option plays or zone read plays to counteract Morgan's aggressive tendencies. Morgan's ability to diagnose plays will need to continue to grow so that he is able to read and react to these more advanced plays.
- Pass coverage - From a pass coverage perspective, the key for Morgan is to learn to get depth in his pass drops. He has a tendency to get mesmerized by the quarterback and drop flat. He must learn to take away the 12 yard pass first and then come up and tackle the 5 yard pass play. It will take time and repetition to develop this skill. Fortunately, Morgan will have 7 on 7 drills over the summer to work on this. I suspect the first time he has Davaris Daniels running up the seam with Ben Koyack coming underneath on the crosser, his head will be spinning. Pass coverage is his biggest obstacle to significant playing time.
There is no question that Nyles Morgan is a great talent. Like any young player, there will be a steep learning curve as he starts his career at Notre Dame. I don't think Morgan is ready to part the Red Sea just yet, but I believe over time he will help lead us to the promised land.