SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Notre Dame views graduate student linebacker and team captain Joe Schmidt as a vital part of its defense, not only for his on-field abilities but because he’s helping train his eventual replacement.
Sophomore Nyles Morgan, a linebacker from Crete, Ill., started Notre Dame’s final five games last year after Schmidt fractured his ankle Nov. 1 against Navy. He was thrown into the fire for what became a four-game losing streak to end the regular season and saw mixed results — 47 tackles and three and a half tackles for a loss were solid numbers, but blown assignments and incorrect alignments were an unfortunate staple of the Irish defense last November.
As was the case when Schmidt was healthy last year, Morgan isn’t pushing him for playing time this fall.
“Joe has been a clean-up hitter for us, if you will, and we don't want to take him out of the lineup,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We feel very confident if Nyles was asked to go in the football game — and I know talking to Brian (VanGorder) about this, in particular, that he's just handled himself extremely well. He's been very impactful on special teams for us and he's ready to go in and play for us.”
Statistically, Schmidt hasn’t made the kind of impact he did last year. He racked up 65 tackles, two interceptions and two forced fumbles in eight games before his injury in 2014; he has 41 tackles, three tackles for a loss and two sacks in seven games this season. One analysis shows Schmidt has missed 18 tackles this year, though he does have more quarterback pressures than any other Irish linebacker.
Still, despite whatever level of regression Schmidt has experienced — it’s worth noting he’s still less than a year removed from his injury — Notre Dame has no intention of removing him from its defensive mix. His ability to get his teammates correctly aligned is valuable, and is one Notre Dame missed after his injury last year.
“I think we're just feeling very comfortable keeping Joe in the lineup, having not had him for so many games last year, we want to get every snap out of him that's possible,” Kelly said. “I think it's really less about Nyles and more about keeping Joe on the field.”
Morgan’s teammates, though, have seen the Crete-Monee High School alum take the right approach to his backseat status.
Junior linebacker and captain Jaylon Smith said Morgan continues to give “relentless effort” in practice, while Schmidt said his understudy is beginning to ask all the right questions.
“(Morgan) continues to get better with his communication, his sight of the plays,” added junior linebacker James Onwualu. “Joe’s so smart, just like you guys know. He’s been in the game and studied the game a little bit longer, so he sees those things that Nyles is still trying to pick up. But Nyles continues to learn and learns very fast.”
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Going from starting five games to being relegated to second-team reps and special teams duties isn’t an enviable transition for Morgan, but it’s one he’s apparently handled well. Notre Dame is confident in his ability to take over for Schmidt — but he’ll have to wait until next year to do it.
“I think Nyles has really settled into understanding his role and bought into learning the ins and outs and nuances of the defense,” graduate student safety and captain Matthias Farley said. “And who better to learn it from than Joe — Joe knows everything, and Jarrett (Grace) as well. I think he understands that he is young and has a lot of time left, and to really buy into his role now and learn as much as he can from the guys in front of him who’ll be gone next year. I think he understands there’s a lot in front of him and it’s really shaped his role.
“It just shows that he’s mentally evolving in the game as well as he’s obviously very physically talented. He’s starting to put all the pieces together and it’s all starting to fit for him. That wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t really settled into his role and been okay with not starting, even though he did with Joe being out. I think he’s settled in, he’s really, really shown a lot of progress.”