Notre Dame's reappearing act: Linebacker Te'von Coney reversing lost spring of 2017

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Te’von Coney unfettered a smile, almost as big as his burgeoning football potential, and came as close to uttering the word “awwwwww” as his enforcer persona would allow.

The inspiration for the Notre Dame senior linebacker exposing his softer side is a Yorkshire terrier puppy named, “Lola,” Coney’s newest companion.

“She’s a cutie,” he offered, seemingly on the verge of pulling out his phone and proving the cuteness quotient when the window on his interview with the media abruptly closed.

The candor, the clarity, the conviction in seemingly everything Coney does these days — including, apparently, doting — is such a departure from the mental/emotional fog the ripped 6-foot-1, 238-pound Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., product muddled through last spring.

“He was missing in action,” Notre Dame head football coach Brian Kelly elaborated. “We didn’t know where he was.”

Or where he was going. Neither did the player who flashed at least reliability in a 2016 sophomore season that included 62 tackles and nine starts.

Where Coney ended up at the end of the 2017 season was as perhaps the Irish defense’s most indispensable piece, even though he spent half the year as a non-starter, a byproduct of that mostly lost spring.

His 116 tackles, capped by 17 in the Jan. 1 Citrus Bowl win over LSU, were the most in a season by an Irish player since Manti Te’o amassed 128 in 2011, and his 13 tackles for loss the most by an ND linebacker since Te’o’s 13.5 that same season.

Coney’s complete stat line (13 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 5 QB hurries, 1 fumble recovery, 1 forced fumble) is statistically similar to recent All-America seasons of Jaylon Smith in 2015 (114 tackles, 9 TFL, 1 sack, 6 QB hurries, 2 forced fumbles, 1 forced fumble) and Te’o in 2012 (113 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 4 QB hurries, 2 fumble recoveries).

The one difference is the pass coverage-related stats. Te’o, for instance, had seven interceptions and four pass breakups in 2012. Smith had five pass breakups in 2015 and dissuaded QBs to check down to another option on countless other passing opportunities.

Coney was most often a bystander on passing downs in 2017, replaced by the nickel, an extra defensive back. That’s something he and elevated first-year defensive coordinator Clark Lea are both determined to change this season as Coney moves from the buck linebacker to the middle of the defense.

“I take responsibility,” Lea said. “I need to coach him better in coverage. He is a very capable coverage player. I think one thing in him coming back is us joining arms and working toward that vision.

“I’m excited for him to grow in that way and that makes him a more complete player.”

By all accounts, through the first seven practices of the 15 this spring, Coney is exhibiting just that and in a number of ways, reinforcing his decision to push off his NFL Draft experience until the spring of 2019.

Most apparent is in his attitude. For instance, when Notre Dame held its Pro Day workouts/auditions for NFL scouts and coaches on March 22, Coney was in attendance. But he didn’t process the experience as a referendum on whether he felt right being a non-participant.

“I was there to support my brothers,” he said of his motivation to show up. “That was their day. I was happy those guys were able to go out there and showcase their talents. And one day it will be my time will be, and I’ll work hard.

“But it was just mainly for me to be there and let those guys know I’m thankful for when I came in that they were there for me.”

Yet last spring, no matter who tried to be there for Coney, he couldn’t shake the funk brought on by a new scheme, new defensive coordinator (Mike Elko at the time) and new position coach (Lea).

There was a point, captured on video, where Lea asked Coney whether he was frustrated and mentioned “today I haven’t heard you once.” To which the linebacker replied on both occasions by mumbling.

“Getting used to the playbook, getting used to my body — I gained a little more weight,” Coney recalled of what he was feeling at the time. “The coaches kept telling me, ‘Just trust the process. Focus on the things you can control.’

“When I did that, it paid off for me. Had I not done that, I don’t know how the fall would have went.”

The aftermath, as the Irish resume with practice No. 8 on Thursday, is a player who is now working to be a leader, more flexible physically and someone who can raise the level of play of the players around him.

“I just wasn’t a complete player last year,” Coney said. “I think I did great things, but there was more in the tank for me. And I knew this coaching staff would be able to get me to the highest level.”

Coney, in turn, is being counted on to help coax an Irish defense with 10 returning starters, to be the first to be among the nation’s 25 best since the 2012 team that played for the national title finished seventh in total defense. The Irish were 46th last season.

“It’s amazing the barriers you can break down when you build a trust,” Lea said of the group’s progress this spring.

As for Coney himself?

“He’s continuing that elevation as a marquee player on our defense,” Kelly said. “He is somebody that is unmistakable now on the field.”

Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney (4) tackles Michigan State’s LJ Scott (3) during an Irish road win on Sept. 23 on his way to a 116-tackle season.(Tribune Photo/MICHAEL CATERINA)