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Schmidt injury brings new set of questions for Irish

Brian Kelly was talking Sunday about shifting out of the mentality of facing Navy when he mentioned that his players were already thinking on the flight home about getting back to their base defense.

"It was interesting, the last series when they started throwing the ball, we were getting into our base familiar calls, and the guys were obviously teeing off and getting after the quarterback," the fifth-year Notre Dame coach said. "You could see there was a different sense of not relief, but they were getting after the quarterback in a way that they're used to.

"It'll be a quick transition and one that, like I had mentioned to you before, we ran some 7-on-7 and did some things to keep our calls active, knowing that it was going to be a quick transition."

It is always a transition out of facing Navy. It is an even bigger transition adjusting a defense that no longer has its most important player.

Joe Schmidt is out for the year following a fractured and dislocated left ankle suffered in the third quarter against the Midshipmen, an injury that completely changes the conversation around these Irish now.

How could they build off their underwhelming initial No. 10 ranking from the College Football Playoff selection committee?

How would they respond to a last-second, controversial -- in their minds, at least -- loss to the defending national champs with an extra week off to stew?

How could they handle the triple-option offense of Navy before transitioning to a tough road test at No. 14 Arizona State?

All of that is on the back burner now, giving way to a simpler, much more important question:

Who runs this defense now, and how?

Schmidt's 65 tackles led the team. His ascension from walk-on to starter to irreplaceable part demanded a respect that few others on the roster can match. His knowledge of the game made him the defense's quarterback -- an on-field extension of new coordinator Brian VanGorder, calling checks and assignments before the snap to get the absolute most out of a unit that was already facing a challenge in trotting out seven newcomers this year, himself among them.

"Joe, worry about what you're going to be doing. Make sure you're ready when the ball's snapped," his father, also named Joe, joked to ESPN.com earlier this season about the unease of watching his son regularly bark orders. "But he seems to figure out a way to read the defense, make the calls and be ready."

Schmidt had led one of the nation's most surprising units early on, with VanGorder looking like a Broyles Award candidate after his defense surrendered just 12 points per game through Notre Dame's first five contests.

Recent competition level is the source of some recent struggles — the Irish have given up 113 points over their last three contests — but the unit had been, in some part, regressing to the mean.

Now? The Irish turn to freshman Nyles Morgan, their highest-rated recruit from the 2014 class who steps into the starting middle linebacker role that had been filled so well by a guy the Irish had not even offered a scholarship to out of high school.

Ironic, sure. And Morgan is a tremendous talent, to be clear. He played much of the second half Saturday, mostly to uneven returns, but Navy certainly presents its own unique set of challenges.

Still, Morgan has a ways to go. Just ask VanGorder, who offered this summation of the former four-star prospect during the Irish's bye week:

"It's been tough. Again, it's a lot of defense and it's been difficult for him to be able to learn it all, let alone then communicate it all, to everybody. So you know, I'll tell you, he definitely has a real resilience about himself. I'm on him a lot. A lot of coaching pressure on him, and he holds up really well. He doesn't flinch. It's going to happen. It's going to come. It's no different than I had rookie linebackers in the NFL, that first year was like, they were confused, they just couldn't do it. And again, I'm hopeful with him, because of his demeanor, that he'll get it. It'll come. And he's got some really, really outstanding physical traits."

No one will doubt that about the 6-foot-1, 230-pound Morgan. And Notre Dame knows better than to fill his plate ahead of the defense's toughest remaining test this Saturday. Kelly had said after the 49-39 win that the defense went with one call the rest of the game after Schmidt left in the third quarter.

"Jaylon (Smith) is going to have to pick up," Kelly said. "I think the defensive line is going to have to be more assertive in making sure they're taking care of their end of things. I think our safeties. I think everybody is going to have to pick up the slack for the loss of a guy that really did most of the work."

Playoffs? Rankings? No, the questions are far more basic now for Notre Dame. Little else matters unless they figure those answers out, and soon.