Notre Dame wanted to add depth to its offensive line and front seven with its 2014 recruiting class, and did so effectively. But four-star linebacker Nyles Morgan (Crete, Ill.) may be more than depth -- he could be the first player to make an impact out of his recruiting class.
That's partly due to skill, and partly due to need. Morgan ranked as the fifth-best inside linebacker among 2014 recruits and is the top prep prospect in the state of Illinois, according to Rivals. Notre Dame lost two of its three starting inside linebackers from last year, too, with Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese moving on after finishing their respective fifth years.
While incumbent Jarrett Grace played Mike last year, Notre Dame sees the 6-foot-2, 223-pound Morgan playing there within a 3-4 base defense. But there's sure to be some shuffling -- as things stand, fifth-year senior Kendall Moore would be in line to start at Will -- which could open the door for Morgan to play as soon as he sets foot on campus.
Of course, it's only early February and there's over six months until Notre Dame kicks off the 2014 season against Rice. But Morgan has all the measurables and the talent to be an impact player in his first year on campus.
"There's still some competition there that he's got to get through, but his skill set, it's pretty easy to see," Kelly said. "That's what a Mike linebacker looks like."
The key for Morgan, and the other 22 players Notre Dame will bring in, is to be mentally ready for the grind of a college season. More and more recruits are coming to college physically fit to make the leap from high school, so the day-to-day classwork, training and practice assignments often are the biggest hurdle to seeing the field immediately. That's partly why former five-star running back Greg Bryant was redshirted last year, Kelly said, to get him acclimated to college life (a knee issue and stacked depth chart didn't work in his favor, either).
"It's really going to be about how you handle it mentally, and then how you adjust to it as a coach," Kelly said. "If he's the very best player, I want the 11 best players on the field."
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Landing Morgan, under the circumstances, was a bit of a coup. Initially, Morgan wasn't interested in Notre Dame. When he did show interest, the coach who recruited him (Chuck Martin) and his position coach (Bob Diaco) both left.
"There was only one guy left to recruit him, and that was me," Kelly said.
Any other coach who could chip in helped recruit Morgan, who verbally committed to the Irish on Jan. 4 -- over a week before Notre Dame officially announced Brian VanGorder as its defensive coordinator. Players helped woo Morgan to South Bend, while Notre Dame coaches won over his parents and high school coaches. Morgan was as close to a must-get as any of Notre Dame's recruiting targets, so it became an all-hands-on-deck situation.
Morgan isn't guaranteed to have success at the college level, as is the case with every recruit across the nation. That mental barrier isn't always easy to cross. But if Morgan can negotiate it, Notre Dame certainly feels like he has the tools to be a strong member of its defense for the next four years.
"(He's) just got a great nose for the football, plays downhill, plays fast, great instincts, and when he arrives, he arrives with a bad attitude when he gets to the football," Kelly lauded. "He's just that kind of player. Very, very talented. I think from our standpoint, an inside guy that certainly has the physical tools to be an exceptional player here at Notre Dame."