Former Notre Dame LB Ben Councell prepares to hit the road

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s linebackers can pretend all they want, but the fact of the matter is that Ben Councell isn’t here.

Not for film sessions at 4 p.m.

Not for lifts at 5.

Certainly not for Saturdays in September.

He could have been, but he isn’t.

That’s because Councell, who tallied 26 tackles in his four seasons in South Bend, opted to take his degree and close the book on his college football career rather than apply for a fifth year of eligibility. The 6-foot-4, 254-pound (former) linebacker is back home in Asheville, N.C., teetering momentarily between two chapters of his life.

"He was offered an opportunity to play," Kelly said of Councell last spring. "We respect his decision."

Though one career ended, relationships persist.

“We had a linebacker group text, and I tried to leave a couple times, and they keep putting me back in,” Councell said with a laugh. “Every day, I get all the group texts. ‘Film’s at 4.’ ‘Lift’s at 5.’ It’s like I’m 500 miles away, but at the same time, I already know what they’re doing every day because I’ve been there for so long.”

Given the opportunity to evaluate his tenure at Notre Dame, Councell wouldn’t change much. Sure, some might say he underachieved in South Bend, arriving as the No. 91 overall player in his recruiting class via Rivals but never starting a game on the collegiate level. A torn ACL suffered nine games into the 2013 season certainly didn’t help.

But Councell knows that the statistics, though pedestrian, don’t reflect the sacrifices he gave to his teammates and the program.

“If I could do it again, I would definitely make the same decision to go to Notre Dame,” Councell said. “Looking back, I have no regrets, because I know I woke up every day and played through injuries, played through everything. It’s just the way the ball rolls. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be an outside linebacker. Maybe I should have been a D-end. But you can’t look back at that stuff. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night.

“But I can look back and know I gave 110 percent every day. Whatever the coaches asked me to do, I went out there and did it, and that’s why I look back with fond memories. It was an unreal experience to be able to play there.”

And that experience wouldn’t have been anything without the people he shared it with — the guys who continue to text him about every film session and every lift, who helped him recover from the ACL injury and return to Notre Dame Stadium.

“Physically, I know for a fact that I didn’t feel the same last year. I just wasn’t as strong,” Councell said. “I wasn’t as dominant as I was before. But I definitely wouldn’t have been able to come back so fast without (roommate and fellow linebacker) Jarrett (Grace).

“Jarrett was right there with me. He was coming back from his leg injury, so every day we were doing rehab together and lifting together and film. We did everything together. It was awesome to have him with me. He pushed me through it. Now, I’m running around. I was mountain biking last week. I’m doing all sorts of stuff. So I don’t feel the injury anymore. But when it came to football last year, I didn’t feel confident out there.”

Combine his depleted physicality with an awkward fit in Brian VanGorder’s scheme and a wealth of talent at the linebacker position, and Councell made the decision to hang up the gold helmet and move on.

But he isn’t leaving football. At least, not yet.

Starting in September, Councell and Caleb Pressley, his former high school teammate who went on to play quarterback at North Carolina, will take a tour bus throughout the South, stopping each Saturday at another premier college football game and documenting their experiences for a website, BarstoolSports.com.

Really?

Really.

“When he first pitched it, I jokingly said, ‘We’re getting paid to do this?’” Councell said. “We get paid to drive around, tailgate and watch SEC football.”

Outside of the SEC, the temporary gig will also provide Councell an opportunity to reunite with his former teammates, as the bus will venture into Death Valley on Oct. 3 for Notre Dame’s highly anticipated road game at Clemson.

Councell acknowledges that the road trip, however surreal, won’t last forever. The proud owner of a College of Arts and Letters degree, he hasn’t ruled out sales, business or television as potential career avenues to explore.

But for now, the Notre Dame alum anticipates seeing another side of the game he recently left behind.

“It’s pretty novel for me,” Councell said. “Even growing up, I was the youngest of five, but I was the first person to start playing football my sophomore year in high school. As far as going to college games, I only did that briefly through the recruiting process. So this will be something I’ve been looking forward to.

“We always did ‘The Walk’ (at Notre Dame), and we’d get to see briefly, just a quick glimpse of the tailgating scene. Being on the sideline is a totally different perspective. Most people grow up watching it, and then get to go on the sideline. Mine was the reverse order.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Ben Councell lines up during the Notre Dame-Louisville NCAA football game on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN