Notre Dame linebacker Te'von Coney realigns with his promise

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Pinned to the top of Te'von Coney's Twitter page are side-by-side photos of a remarkable physical transformation that unfolded last winter for the already sculpted Notre Dame linebacker.

The metamorphosis going on inside is no less remarkable.

The latter started long before Coney found himself in the back of a squad car, 45 minutes from campus, roughly 15 months ago and seemingly light years away from the promise he made himself when he verbally committed to Notre Dame in late October of 2014.

Notre Dame would make him a better person, he reasoned, when the former Palm Beach (Fla.) Gardens High star pushed away “dream school” Florida, nearby University of Miami and all the other suitors, to slip out of his comfort zone.

He “talked to God” about his college decision, slept on it, then talked to God again before slipping on an ND cap in a public and webcast ceremony.

He enrolled early at ND three months later, evolved steadily as a freshman special teams contributor and was six weeks away from starting his sophomore season when Coney and four Irish teammates — Max Redfield, Ashton White, Kevin Stepherson and Dexter Williams — were arrested in Fulton County, Ind. Coney was charged with marijuana possession.

Redfield, the oldest player in the group and the one one charged with more than marijuana possession (carrying a handgun without a license), was booted off the football team by Kelly the very next day and eventually expelled from school before he could finish his last semester of academic requirements.

The other four were free to read between the lines and respond accordingly.

“I had to first recognize I made a mistake,” Coney, ND's leading tackler, said Wednesday after practice as the ninth-ranked Irish (6-1) continue to prep for Saturday's Notre Dame Stadium showdown with No. 14 North Carolina State (6-1).

“And I accepted that and I was ready to accept the consequences that were in front of me. After I did that, I was able to put it behind me. And I promised myself and my university and my family that I would continue to do the right things, stay on the right path and follow the traits and the process (outlined by coach Brian Kelly).

“And that made it easier to grow as a person and kind of put it past me. Just staying in the moment and do the right things and trusting my coaches and my teammates.”

He is surging on the field, fresh off an 11-tackle performance in ND's 49-14 squashing of USC that earned him national Bednarik Defensive Player of the Week honors. Included in that tackle total was a sack/strip/fumble recovery on USC's first offensive play of the game and later a body slam of Velus Jones on a kickoff return.

On the initial play, Coney credited linebackers coach Clark Lea with tipping him off that USC quarterback Sam Darnold tended to hold the ball loosely, so why not take a swipe at it, especially after Darnold didn't field the ball cleanly.

Coney also got some good insight on the special teams play.

“It's fun,” the 6-foot-1, 240-pounder said. “(Special teams) coach (Brian) Polian told me where the ball was going to go on that particular scheme that they ran. I was happy he was able to coach me up on that, so it put me in the right place to make that play.”

Trusting the new scheme of coordinator Mike Elko and the new way of being coached by Lea didn't happen right away, and contributed to the nine-game starter in 2016 starting this season as a reserve.

Though he was in a time share with senior captain Greer Martini and could rotate when needed to spell middle linebacker Nyles Morgan, Coney's first start didn't come until the North Carolina game on Oct. 7, a 33-10 Irish road win.

Martini then suffered a knee injury during the bye week, leaving Coney to man the buck linebacker position himself against the Trojans last Saturday night.

“He played his butt off. He was outstanding,” Kelly said. “It was his best performance at Notre Dame.”

Martini, incidentally, resumed practicing Tuesday, less than two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a meniscus tear, and is expected to play against the Wolfpack on Saturday. He is ND's fourth-leading tackler, with 39, 14 behind Coney's total.

And Kelly expects Coney to continue to ascend.

“I think it's like anything else, he's trusting the teaching,” Kelly said. “I think that trust is starting to show itself on the field.”

Coney was willing to work hard to earn Kelly's trust back off the field.

“It's a privilege to be here to be able to follow the traits, to be able to follow the process, to be able to do great things like I'm doing right now,” he said.

“He is one in a long line of young men that have made mistakes, and have been held accountable, have from that point on grown from the mistake that he made,” Kelly said. “He's grown off the field, the decisions that he makes on a day-to-day basis, and now he's growing as a football player.

“We were more interested in the growth of Te'von Coney off the field, and the football's starting to catch up, so we're good with that.”

No. 9 NOTRE DAME (6-1) vs. No. 14 N.C. STATE (6-1)

WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Notre Dame Stadium

TV: NBC

RADIO: WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 7

Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney (4) celebrates making a stop last Saturday night in a 49-14 victory over USC at Notre Dame Stadium. (Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)