Notre Dame linebacker Te'von Coney taking comfort in the uncomfortable

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — The illusion that linebacker Te’von Coney has settled into a comfort zone is shattered behind closed doors on an almost daily basis.

And in a twisted way, it works for the player who by season’s end could be the face of the Notre Dame football program, but for the time being is unquestionably its muscle.

“He’ll have numbers when he power-cleans that are incredible,” marveled ND director of football performance Matt Balis, a man usually much more inclined to grunt directives than to spew superlatives.

“He’s fast, especially laterally. He’s powerful. He’s very gifted and he works very hard.”

And one of the biggest reasons all that translates to the field is Clark Lea, ND’s 36-year-old, first-year defensive coordinator, Coney’s position coach this season and last, and a man who won’t let the senior from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., forget why he landed at Notre Dame in the first place.

To escape his comfort zone.

“They’ll butt heads,” fellow starting linebacker Drue Tranquill said of Lea, who somehow manages to do so in soothing tones, and the 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney.

“And they’ll butt heads hard, but they have the utmost respect for each other.

“I’ll never forget, it was last spring (2017), and it was kind of a turning point for (Coney). Coach Lea kind of challenged him. He said, ‘Your effort at practice and your attitude on a day-to-day basis just isn’t there.’

“It flipped a switch with him, and he just became dominant. He just took over. We had two senior starters, but he was so productive, you had to play him.”

Coney, a reserve at the start of the 2017 season and only a starter in seven games of the 13 for the Irish (10-3), finished with the most tackles (116) and tackles for loss (13) by an ND player since 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up Manti Te’o amassed 128 and 13.5, respectively in 2011.

And now Lea wants more. and Coney is willing to give more.

That’s why he came back to Notre Dame for his senior season instead of wading into the NFL Draft pool a year early.

“One of my charges to him,” Lea said, “when he was deliberating was, ‘Look, not only are you coming back to play linebacker for me. But if you’re back, I need you to help me push this defense forward.’”

That has shown up in expected and unexpected ways.

Head coach Brian Kelly divides his roster into SWAT teams, to which points are awarded or deducted based on each group’s strength, speed, agility, discipline, academics and mat drills/conditioning.

Punter/captain Tyler Newsome’s team topped the charts with almost 60 points. Coney’s brought up the rear with minus-12, but often Kelly will give the most problematic teammates to a player in whom he wants to bring the leadership forward.

“(Because) his SWAT team came in last place this week, they were required to check in at 6:45 every morning,” Kelly said. “And (Coney) has been the first one here, making sure they check in. Just those little things of accountability. I think that that’s so important.”

So is helping to bring along two semi-surprises right behind Tranquill and Coney on the depth chart, freshman Bo Bauer and sophomore and converted safety Jordan Genmark Heath, two players who could very well be the starters in 2019.

But Coney’s most profound influence may be on captain/grad senior/newlywed and a player at the very top of Balis’ individual accountability charts, Tranquill.

The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder is starting at his third different position in three years — the buck linebacker — after playing rover last season and strong safety the season before.

“My instincts are just to go, and I just have a tenacity in my play,” Tranquill said. “And he’s a guy who has that, too, but also has a finesse side to his game. He made so many plays last year just by being patient and seeing where the ball kind of fit.

“And that’s something I’m learning from him now, and I’ve seen his production kind of skyrocket from spring ball to fall camp, just from being more patient and allowing the ball to come to me instead of just going and allowing the ball to fit somewhere else.

“I really appreciate his game and how he can teach me, and maybe he can take some things from me too.”

Coney’s own game must evolve in pass coverage, and the commitment to that from Lea’s standpoint is that Coney no longer comes off the field in obvious third-down passing situations. The rover now does.

“Definitely going to see some interceptions this year,” Coney said. “I’m going to get my hand on a couple. Trying to get some touchdowns. Be more of a game-changer.

“(It’s) a lot of drill work and sitting down with coach Lea as well and understanding the concepts of passing and what offense is. Today coach Kelly pulled me aside and taught me little techniques I could use to help me in pass coverage.

“Just day in and day out learn little things that could help me in coverage, just putting it all together and just being a complete player.”

To that end, he studies former teammate and Irish All-America linebacker Jaylon Smith on film and follows up on the phone.

“He’s that big brother figure that you always want, one that’s always going to be honest with you,” Coney said of the current Dallas Cowboy. “Listen to his plan for success.”

There are moments when Coney makes the plan look easy, look comfortable, like dominating the Irish run game in live-tackling periods during practice. Away from the field, he has a Yorkshire puppy named Lola. and with his degree already in hand, Coney had the option to take an easy elective in the classroom this fall.

He chose Chinese Economics.

Another push out of his comfort zone.

“My grandma used to tell me I had a young kid’s body with a grown mind,” Coney said. “I always was looking forward to my future. and I knew that growing and being a young man at an early age would be best for me as far as the goals that I want to set and want to accomplish.

“Being able to get out of my comfort zone and becoming a complete player and complete person would be beneficial for the things I wanted to do in my future.”

Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly chats with Te’von Coney (4) before the Blue-Gold Spring game April 21.