Notre Dame looks to replace linebacker Schmidt

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) -- Coach Brian Kelly isn't sure how eighth-ranked Notre Dame will replace the leadership of middle linebacker Joe Schmidt.

The senior, who sustained a season-ending fractured and dislocated left ankle in a 49-39 victory over Navy on Saturday, had been making sure the Fighting Irish were in the right defense and lined up correctly. With freshman Nyles Morgan taking his spot and two sophomores filling the other two linebacker slots, Kelly isn't sure who will be taking over those duties.

"We've got a couple things we're going to experiment with today, and then we'll get a better feel," Kelly said Tuesday. "We haven't practiced yet, so we have a system that we'll employ today, and I think we'll get a better feel over the next couple days."

Before the season began, no one would have been surprised if Morgan, a five-star recruit from Crete, Illinois, had beaten out Schmidt, a former walk-on, two-thirds of the way through the season. Morgan is a faster and more athletic than Schmidt, who had never started a game and entered the season with 21 career tackles in two seasons.

But Schmidt is a smart player who has a knack for being in the right spot. He was leading the team in tackles, interceptions and fumbles forced and developed into such a leader that coach Kelly describes him as the "heart and soul" of the defense.

The loss of Schmidt couldn't come at a more inopportune time. The Irish (7-1) have given up 30 or more points for three straight games, something they've done only a handful of times in 126 seasons of football, and are facing No. 11 Arizona State (7-1), which is averaging 483.6 yards a game in total offense. That's 22nd in the nation, the highest ranked offense the Irish will face this season.

Kelly said he feels good about the way the defense played in a 31-27 loss to Florida State on Oct. 18.

"We had four or five free runs at the quarterback that we just missed getting there, and we needed to be a little bit tighter in coverage," he said. "So I think we've got to continue to improve in tighter coverage and get home when we've got the opportunities. I think if we do that, we'll be fine on Saturday."

Kelly said the middle linebacker position can be as complicated or as simple as the coaching staff makes it.

"We certainly are going to have to take some of that load away from Nyles and really kind of disperse it to others because we're not going to heap that all on him," Kelly said.

During the off week before facing, Navy, Notre Dame defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder described Morgan's progress as gradual, saying he was struggling to learn the defense.

"It's a lot of defense. It's been difficult for him to be able to learn it all, let alone then communicate it all to everybody," he said.

ValGorder said Morgan was holding up well under the pressure, saying he has a lot of resilience.

"I'm hopeful with him, because of his demeanor, that he'll get it," VanGorder said. "It will come. And he's got some really, really outstanding physical traits."

Morgan's athleticism should allow the Irish to do some things they couldn't with Schmidt, Kelly said.

"It opens up a whole new path to some things that we couldn't do with Joe that we're pretty excited that we can do with Nyles," he said.

Notes: Kelly said all the other players who sustained injuries against Navy have been cleared for practice and are expected to play against Arizona State. ... Kelly defended Notre Dame's strength of schedule when he was asked whether he was concerned about impressing the playoff selection committee. "We go into this putting together the toughest schedule in the country. Nobody else does it that way. They put on teams that are clearly glorified byes. We don't operate that way. That to me is strength of schedule in terms of the way we put it together."