Notre Dame football: Councell heeds new mantra

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- Maybe it was the inspirational gimmick of Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco wearing full-blown sweats every day to practice — in the August heat.

Whatever moved junior Ben Councell to become a walking, breathing cliché, he seems to have mastered it. And that, in turn, he insists, was elevating his game, even before a medical condition coaxed ND’s No. 1 option at drop (outside) linebacker, senior Danny Spond, to convert himself to a student assistant coach over the weekend.

“I’m just happy he’s being able to recover, and we’ve been praying for him every day,” Councell said Monday after practice.

That Spond hadn’t been able to practice since the earliest days of training camp, had Councell already running with the 1s, and freshman prodigy Jaylon Smith, the nation’s No. 3 incoming prospect regardless of position, pushing hard.

But this time, Councell looks and acts the part.

A year ago, migraines so severe they prompted Spond to be hospitalized defaulted Councell to the No. 1 practice reps, but when it came time to play in the games, Irish head coach Brian Kelly opted for safety Matthias Farley to drop down to the drop ’backer spot against Navy in the season opener and inside linebacker Dan Fox to move to the perimeter the following week.

Spond returned in Week 3 and quickly and decisively distanced himself from Councell and everyone else. The latter did play in 12 of 13 games in 2012 with a modest 10 tackles to show for it.

But this past spring Councell surged. Diaco called him the team’s most improved defensive player as the 15 sessions wrapped up.

Physically, Councell, who arrived at ND at 6-foot-4 and 220, got used to playing at his current 255 pounds. That came with occasional aching knees and cramps in his lower back, but eventually agility drills put him in a new comfort zone.

Mentally, it was all about taking one day at a time. Seriously.

It’s not just a symptom of Notre Dame’s recent media training for its players, training that had sophomore outside linebacker Romeo Okwara so tied up, he proclaimed he wasn’t allowed to talk about football.

As for Councell?

“There are a lot of distractions ... you’re 10 hours away from home,” the Asheville, N.C., product said. “You’ve got family. You’ve got school — Notre Dame’s not an easy school.

“(It’s about) having to categorize everything. And then once you came into the Gug (ND’s football training, office and locker room facility), it’s time to practice and I’m just focusing, shutting down everything else.”

That includes shutting down the Notre Dame offense more than occasionally. Kelly knew he had something special when Councell started to win some of the individual battles in drills with 6-7, 270-pound tight end Troy Niklas.

“We want dominance on defense,” Councell said, “and we want it on each and every play.”

Councell certainly had the pedigree. Underrated when he first committed to Notre Dame, Councell ended up in’s top 100 and was tugged on by Southeastern Conference schools eager to have him decommit and come play defensive end in their 4-3 schemes.

But Councell, who played mostly outside linebacker at A.C. Reynolds High, wanted to continue to play that position in college.

“But you get to the collegiate level, and it’s a lot more precise,” he said. “There is a lot more specifics in the coverages and play calls.”

In Notre Dame’s scheme, you’ve got to be strong enough to fend off 300-plus-pound offensive tackles and fast enough to run with slot receivers. Kelly projects some kind of time share between Councell and Smith at this time, with Okwara and John Turner cross-training from the Cat linebacker and safety positions, respectively, to provide some depth.

“That’s news to me,” said Councell, staying true to his new “don’t look to far ahead” mantra.

But he is looking forward to his first really meaningful snaps since his high school senior season.

“I feel like it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to go out there, shut down everything else and run around and hit people,” he said. “That’s what I love to do.”

Ben Councell