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Irish defense adjusts to life without Joe Schmidt

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Last year's Arizona State game served as a coming-out party of sorts for Jaylon Smith, as the then-freshman tallied a then-career high nine tackles, forced a fumble and began to resemble the five-star stud Notre Dame had signed out of high school.

Fast-forward to this Saturday's trip to ASU, and the Irish defense could sure use a similar performance from a much-hyped prep linebacker.

Nyles Morgan, Notre Dame's highest-rated recruit from this past cycle, ascends into the starting Mike linebacker role as the No. 10 Irish look to keep their playoff hopes alive and score their second win in as many years against the No. 9 Sun Devils. Ahead of his team's biggest remaining game, Morgan, a former four-star prospect out of Crete-Monee, Illinois, is tasked with manning the most important position on a defense that lost its leader, Joe Schmidt, for the rest of the season.

"Very exciting player," Smith said of Morgan. "Reminds me a lot like myself as a freshman. Really not knowing much but having great athletic traits and really coachable, so he's a great guy."

Schmidt, who suffered a broken left ankle this past weekend against Navy, was somewhat of a traffic cop in the middle of first-year coordinator Brian VanGorder's defense, signaling in the plays and making sure his 10 teammates were properly aligned. Coaches had referred to him as a unique extension of themselves on the field, and fellow defenders had deemed him indispensable.

But Smith said nothing will be reduced or simplified without Schmidt, as the Irish defense still looks to play on its own terms. Out goes the former walk-on-turned-leader, in comes the ballyhooed-but-green rookie, a trade-off Notre Dame has no choice but to live with as it heads to Tempe.

"Um, maybe athletic traits, or a bit more aggressive as far as God-given," Smith said when asked what Morgan could possibly bring to the table that Schmidt did not. "So you talk about tackle-for-loss and things like that, I guess. But from a communication standpoint, he's definitely far from Joe. So am I. But we'll work together."

Morgan, whom Notre Dame has not made available for interviews this season, will still be charged with making the calls, Smith said. If anything looks askew, Smith and defensive lineman Sheldon Day will set on correcting matters.

"Everybody's stepped up their communication a lot, especially coming from me and Jaylon and the safeties," said Day, a captain. "Everybody's making sure we understand what's going on when the play is called and everybody's on the same page."

Morgan was ESPN's No. 2 player out of Illinois, its No. 5 inside linebacker recruit nationally and its No. 72 player overall from the class of 2014. He has eight tackles, including one for loss, in limited action this season.

The 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan saw extended playing time in Saturday's 49-39 win against Navy after Schmidt went down in the third quarter, but coach Brian Kelly said the Irish were reduced to one defensive call when faced with Schmidt's absence. The call sheet has thickened with practice time, players said, and distancing themselves from the Midshipmen's triple-option attack is a welcome reprieve.

"It's expanded tremendously," Smith said. "We're back to playing what we call regular football. Navy is a whole different offense, so we're going to be good."

An old sophomore if ever there were one, Smith has started all 21 games through nearly two years at Notre Dame, assuming the starting Dog linebacker role in old coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 defense last season after starter Danny Spond (hemiplegic migraines) was forced to retire during fall camp. Spond served as a mentor to Smith throughout last season, and Smith said Schmidt can do the same for Morgan and the unit as a whole down the stretch here.

The staff has plenty of faith in Morgan's ability to rise to the occasion.

"He's been unbelievable," Kelly said. "Look, we have been so hard on him. I think we said to him about three weeks in: 'You're either going to quit or you're going to be one of the best players that's ever played here.'

"Because we're hard on him, really hard on him, and he just keeps coming back asking for more, and that's the kind of kid he is. From Day 1, he's been in there asking questions, learning the defense, watching film. So no, there's not any more (film work), it's just that he's going to be out there now instead of watching, he's going to be playing."