Notre Dame LB Te'von Coney instills fear, stays silent on NFL future

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

ORLANDO, Fla. — Te’von Coney spoke a goal-line stand into existence.

Two, actually.

Twice in Monday’s 21-17 Citrus Bowl victory over No. 16 LSU, Notre Dame’s defense stood one yard between its opponent and the Irish end zone.

And twice, the Tigers didn’t get there.

Notre Dame’s two goal-line stands only yielded three total points, in fact, as LSU placekicker Connor Culp missed a point-blank, 22-yard field goal in the second quarter to maintain a scoreless game.

Maybe Culp was scared of the moment … and maybe he wasn’t alone.

“We kept telling them that they were scared, that they didn’t want to see us,” Coney said after the game. “It showed that they were scared. They were off sides. They just couldn’t get it right.”

In Coney — Notre Dame’s prophetic 6-foot-1, 240-pound linebacker — opposing offensive coordinators have found plenty to fear. The Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., native piled up team-highs in tackles (116) and tackles for loss (13) in a breakout junior season, all despite starting just seven games and splitting time with senior captain Greer Martini.

To compare with another recently renowned Irish linebacker, consensus All-American Jaylon Smith produced 114 tackles and nine tackles for loss, while starting all 13 games, in 2015.

So how did Coney get here? How did a reserve in the season opener against Temple climb so high, so fast?

“He’s one of those guys that in the spring just wasn’t sure,” said senior rover Drue Tranquill, who produced 11 tackles and two tackles for loss in the win over LSU. “They were asking him to do a lot of different things, to cross-train between Mike and Buck. A lot of times, you as a player, think, ‘Well, that doesn’t seem fair. I don’t think you’re putting me in the best position.’

“I think it took a little bit of time for him to buy in. But once he bought in, the sky’s the limit for him. You saw that this year.”

Certainly, you saw it on Monday, when Coney again led the Irish with 17 tackles — a season-high — in what head coach Brian Kelly called “one of the best games that we've seen him play for us.”

But was the Citrus Bowl victory also Coney’s grand finale?

“I haven’t even thought about it yet,” Coney said, when asked if he has decided whether to enter the 2018 NFL Draft. “I’ve put that behind me right now, and for the last month I’ve been only focusing on LSU and focusing on the team goal, which is to get the 10th win.

“Now that we got it we’re just going to enjoy it.”

Coney — along with another fellow junior, nose guard Jerry Tillery — will have to think about it soon. Underclassmen have until Jan. 15 to declare for the NFL Draft, and wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown and running back Josh Adams have already done so.

It wouldn't be a surprise for Coney to come to the same conclusion, especially considering that defensive coordinator Mike Elko — who was instrumental in the linebacker's ascension — accepted a contract offer with Texas A&M on Thursday. Irish linebackers coach Clark Lea, who came to Notre Dame with Elko from Wake Forest, may again follow his colleague out the door.

If Coney does forego his senior season in favor of the NFL, he’ll join a draft class that also includes senior linebackers and captains Nyles Morgan and Martini. If you exclude the rover, which operates as a hybrid safety/linebacker in the existing Irish defense, Notre Dame will return zero career starts at the linebacker positions in 2018.

To confront that quandary, Kelly signed three traditional linebackers in December: Jack Lamb, Bo Bauer and Ovie Oghoufo, plus rover candidate Shayne Simon.

The 2018 Irish might lack experience, but not talent.

Of course, a returning Coney could also potentially provide both. And he still has room for improvement.

Now, that’s a scary thought.

“I’m kind of just staying level-headed,” Coney said. “I’m more concerned with the mistakes and the things I want to work on. My coaches make sure I never get too high and that I focus on what I need to do to get better so I can continue to grow.”

But how how many of those coaches will still be in South Bend next season?

And where, exactly, will Coney's continued growth occur?

“I’m right now still focused on the win,” Coney said on Monday, prior to Elko's exit, when pushed further on his future. “We just got that 10th win and I’m just trying to soak in the moment.

“This is a great moment. This is a moment that I’m going to remember for the rest of my life.”

mvorel@ndinsider.com

574-235-6428

Twitter: @mikevorel

Notre Dame’s Te'von Coney (4) celebrates a big stop during the Notre Dame-NC State NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 28, 2017, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN