Growing up can be difficult. The Notre Dame defense provided many examples to prove this in 2014. A game day roster filled with talented but inexperienced players resulted in a defense that had flashes of brilliance, interspersed with inconsistent and at times downright awful play. Although many Irish fans perceived this inconsistency as proof positive that something is fundamentally wrong with the Fighting Irish, in reality this is the natural trajectory for most young players and young defenses. It takes time to master even the most basic elements of college football.
However, if a young player can master the basic elements, the foundation for greatness is set. A metamorphosis occurs. As the young player matures, he no longer has to spend all his mental and physical energy on the most basic elements of his job. He's able not only to see the bigger picture, but to have an impact beyond the initial responsibilities of his position. This has a ripple effect throughout the entire defense.
Many believe that a number of players on the Notre Dame defense are ready to take this next step. Let's take a look at the film and I'll show you an example that highlights a few players that will need to go beyond the basics next year if the Irish defense is going to be successful.
3rd & 5, LSU is going to run a fake sweep (red line) and pitch the ball to Leonard Fournette (# 7, red star) on the back side. The three defenders with blue stars are responsible for any play away from the sweep side. Nyles Morgan (# 5, yellow star), will check the sweep and flow to the backside if necessary.
The blocking scheme is pretty straight forward (red arrows). Defensive end Andrew Trumbetti (yellow arrow, # 98) will be left unblocked, so the offensive tackle can seal middle linebacker Nyles Morgan.
Let's start from the inside out. Nyles Morgan's first responsibility is to mirror Fournette (blue arrow). Trumbetti, is looking for any sort of misdirection play off the sweep, especially quarterback boot (purple arrow). Elijah Sumate (# 22) has to cover the tight end man to man (yellow dotted line).
Jaylon Smith (# 9) has the most important job (green line, green arrows). He's responsible for setting the edge of the defense. At the most basic level this means, he can't let anyone outside. However, this job requires more than that. If the edge is set too wide, the defense is highly vulnerable. It becomes difficult for players pursuing from the inside to get to the ball carrier. This creates seams on the perimeter that are easily exploited by a good running back.
When I was coaching, the analogy I used was that edge players were like the walls of the trash compactor in Star Wars. Their job was to keep everything inside and squeeze the edges of the defense towards the middle. This is exactly what Jaylon Smith needs to do on this play, don't let anything outside and squeeze towards the middle (green line, green arrows).
A fraction of a second after the snap, Fournette is about to receive the pitch. Let's start from the inside and work our way out again. Nyles Morgan is in decent position (crimson arrow). He takes a false step with the fly motion (and a slight counter step by Fournette), but is back on track and will flow to the outside. Andrew Trumbetti is unblocked (green arrow). Unfortunately, he has also taken a false step inside. While not a major mistake, it puts him one step behind a very fast running back.
Jaylon Smith (yellow circle) isn't in great position initially. His head is on the wrong side (purple arrow). He'll have to work hard to get his head to the outside (red arrow) so he can maintain proper leverage.
This is where things start to go wrong for the Irish. Nyles Morgan and Elijah Shumate are both in danger of getting sealed (blue arrows). They have to contend with much larger players who are in perfect positon to execute a seal block. Andrew Trumbetti is in good position (green arrow), but he must stop heading up field and flatten his angle of pursuit or Fournette will run right by him.
Jaylon Smith is using the wrong technique. A spin move will help him get to the outside but it will also make it very difficult to set the edge. This is because Smith has to turn his back on Fournette (red arrow) to execute the spin move. As a result, Jaylon can't see if the running back is continuing to the outside or cutting up the field. When the back cuts up the field, Smith must set the edge and squeeze, but he can't do that if he can't see him.
Here's where the wheels fall off. Shumate and Morgan are getting mauled (blue circles) and the edge of the defense has been blown out. Jaylon Smith has been pushed too far to the outside (the red line shows where he started and where he ended up). To make matters worse, Smith has been sealed by the blocker (yellow line) which opens a nice cut back lane. The only hope is that Trumbetti (green arrow) can find an extra gear and track down Fournette before he's off to the races.
And it's over. Smith (yellow arrow) and Trumbetti (green arrow) are in a trail position and Shumate has been pushed half way to Canada (blue arrow). Cue up the LSU marching band.
Nyles Morgan has taken a lot of abuse during this off season. He's gone from highly touted recruit, to internet whipping boy in the matter of a few short months. Ah, the masses are fickle.
This is the type of play that critics will point to as evidence that Morgan was a disaster last year. Admittedly he ends up running straight into the blocker like a kamikaze and loses, but the reality is most linebackers wouldn't beat this block. It's really hard when the lineman is in perfect position, just waiting for you.
With time Morgan will be better equipped to deal with this scenario. He'll understand that in this situation taking on the blocker isn't to his advantage. He'll intuitively know the one advantage he has is that the blocker has no clue where the running back is (because his back is to the running back). As a result, Morgan can influence the blocker with his eyes. By looking away from where he wants to end up (yellow dotted line) the blocker will naturally move in that direction. When Morgan gets close to the moment of impact, he can use a quick jab step to the outside, while at the same time bringing his left arm across in a club move (red arrow). This will either knock the blocker's arm down or knock him off balance. Morgan will then bring his right hand underneath, dip his shoulder, punch through and use a rip move. From there it's a straight sprint to the green star and hopefully a collision course with Fournette.
So yes, Nyles Morgan did get mauled on this play. But it shouldn't be used as an indictment against him. The truth is this would be a difficult play for any linebacker, let alone a freshman. Give him time, the kid is going to be a player. Okay, I'm off my soap box.
Technically all the highlighted players did at least part of their job on this play. Jaylon Smith didn't let the ball carrier get outside. Elijah Shumate covered his man. Andrew Trumbetti made sure the quarterback didn't keep the ball on the bootleg. Nyles Morgan made sure the player faking the sweep didn't have the ball. Unfortunately, at this level of football, you have to go beyond basic responsibilities.
Jaylon Smith needed to set the edge more aggressively. Elijah Shumate needed to recognize run earlier and get off his block. Andrew Trumbetti, didn't need to take a false step towards the quarterback. Nyles Morgan needed to beat the block of the offensive tackle.
Next year, each one of these players should be able to cover their basic responsibility and do more. If that metamorphosis occurs, it's going to be a fun year.