The oft-criticized Notre Dame defensive unit has made tremendous strides – perhaps not in victories procured - but at least statistically since the firing of coordinator Brian VanGorder a few weeks ago.
The Fighting Irish were ranked among the worst of the 128-team FBS in total defense earlier this season, but they have improved dramatically and are currently ranked 56th.
“You can make those jumps quickly,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
One of the steady parts of the shaky unit has been the play of linebacker Nyles Morgan.
“Nyles hasn’t changed a lot in my dealings with him,” Kelly said. “I think he’s becoming a little bit more comfortable.”
Kelly was speaking of Morgan’s personality off of the football field, because on the field, he’s extremely “comfortable.”
Morgan leads the Irish with 58 tackles, which is 11 more than any other player. He also has added three tackles for a loss and a pair of sacks, which is significant because Notre Dame is pathetic at actually getting to opposing quarterbacks (there are only two teams in the entire country worse at registering sacks).
“He’s tough,” Kelly said. “He’s committed. He loves to play the game.”
Morgan replaced perhaps the most vocal player in the Notre Dame program, veteran captain Joe Schmidt, which is ironic, because the two players could not be more different in their verboseness. But Morgan is evolving in that regard.
“What I see with him more than anything else,” Kelly said, “is he’s not afraid to hold his teammates accountable. He’ll speak up from that standpoint.
“If there is one thing that has changed, his presence is felt every day on the practice field and in the meetings.”
Wins are the focus, not a bowl game
With a 2-5 record and five remaining games against teams with winning records, including a pair of nationally ranked foes (Navy and Virginia Tech), the road to bowl eligibility (six wins) for Notre Dame is obviously daunting. However, Kelly said that his team isn’t using a bowl game appearance as any type of motivation at this point, other than it allows his players to play the game for a longer period of time.
“They really don’t care whether they get a Visa gift card in the bowl game,” Kelly said. “They want to practice more. They want to be with their teammates. They want to be with their guys. They want to win football games.”
Kelly hasn’t had to talk with his team about long-term goals at all this season. His players and coaching staff have only focused on the next game. In fact, redshirt sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer said that after a “24-hour grace period” following each game, he moves on mentally regardless of what happened.
“My mind is forward,” Kizer said. “Since a game is over, 24-hour grace period, we push it behind us and move forward.”
There haven’t been a lot of Irish squads that have been in the position that this one finds itself in, but Kelly said being one of the worst teams in program history after seven weeks hasn’t been a message to his players, because it’s not a productive one.
“We don’t spend time talking about worst or bad or all-time negative, things of that nature,” Kelly said. “We are who we are. We’re 2-5. We know where we are. That’s not really going to be a solution to us.
“The guys have a ton of pride. I don’t have to hit them in the nose with a newspaper and remind them of that. We don’t talk about that. We talk about ‘How do we get a win?’”
Robinson still contributing, working
When Corey Robinson decided to retire from football because of a concussion suffered last spring, he elected to serve as a “student coach,” and Kelly said that like everything Robinson has done in his life, he is working diligently at the task and performing well.
“Corey has done a nice job,” Kelly said. “I like his engagement. When I say ‘engagement,’ his investment to the team is one of presence.”
Robinson is not only enrolled in graduate course work after earning his undergraduate degree last spring, he is also the student body president. So for him to devote time to the football program, with all of his other commitments, is impressive to Kelly.
“He’s here every single day,” Kelly said. “As student body president, you could easily make the excuse of ‘Hey, I’ve got a meeting, I can’t be here.’ This has been a priority for him. So I’m very impressed with the fact that this is a priority for him, as well.”
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