Notre Dame LB Te'von Coney not concerned with doubters ahead of College Football Playoff

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

After a big play, Te’von Coney has two go-to moves.

Notre Dame’s leading tackler will either stop and cross his arms or he’ll wag his finger in rejection.

It may seem that the senior linebacker is simply striking a pose for the cameras or the crowd. But the small celebrations have meaning. Coney’s sending a message to the offense.

“If I felt like they tried to run a play directly at me — that they felt like I couldn’t stop it or a particular player — then I’ll cross my arms like ‘Come on, man. You really thought I wasn’t going to make that play?’” Coney said.

“The finger wag is more so for me making a really good play. It’s like, ‘No, that play didn’t work.’ Whether they try a trick play or something to get my eyes in the wrong place and I still end up making the play, I’ll do the finger wag to let them know it’s not going to work.”

If No. 3 Notre Dame (12-0) has any chance at slowing down the explosive running game of No. 2 Clemson (13-0) in the College Football Playoff semifinal Saturday, the Irish will need plenty of arm crossing and finger wagging. Coney will be tasked with preventing the Tigers from gashing Notre Dame’s defense on the ground at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.

No team in the country has rushed for more yards per game (259.8) with fewer than Clemson’s 500 carries. The Tigers lead the nation with 6.75 yards per carry. Sophomore running back Travis Etienne — with 176 rushes for 1,463 yards and 21 touchdowns — leads the Clemson ground attack.

Coney knows he’s going to need to get some help from the Irish defensive line to penetrate and eliminate opportunities for big runs.

“Playing against a running back like that who’s just waiting for a small crease,” Coney said, “you have to make sure you get him in the backfield and get him to stall his feet a little bit.”

The task of limiting any phase of Clemson’s offense won’t be easy. The Tigers average 45.4 points per game.

“This is one of the more complete teams that we’ve played this year,” Coney said. “Everyone recognizes that. We just have to go out there and do what we do.”

Notre Dame hasn’t faced an offense this high-powered all season. Statistically speaking, Syracuse isn’t that far behind Clemson. The Orange averaged 40.8 points and 468.8 yards per game (compared to 529.8 for Clemson). Notre Dame held Syracuse — though it played without starting quarterback Eric Dungey for most of the game because of injury — to three points and 234 yards.

Still, there will be doubters of Notre Dame’s defense heading into Saturday’s matchup.

“Everyone’s entitled to their opinion,” Coney said. “We know what we have as a group as a defense. We know how hard we work. We know what we’re capable of doing. We’re just focused on the things we can control.”

‘An incredible transformation’

One thing Coney can control is his diet, but he’s built a reputation as an unhealthy eater.

The Palm Beach Gardens (Fla.) High product admits he has a weakness for chicken and fast food. Buffalo Wild Wings is his go-to spot in town.

Coney wants to improve his diet after Notre Dame’s season as he prepares for the NFL Draft, but poor eating habits haven’t prohibited him from having a prolific senior season. He leads the Irish with 107 tackles — 31 more than safety Alohi Gilman in second.

“I drink a lot of water and work out a ton,” Coney said. “I’ve been blessed to be in the situation where I can eat a little bit unhealthy and still play at a good level. Eating healthy would bring my game to the next level. That’s something I truly believe in.”

Coney already has made an impressive physical transformation in the past two years. When director of football performance Matt Balis was hired, Coney reaped the benefits. The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Coney has added only six pounds since January 2017. But with it, Coney became thicker, more chiseled and in better shape.

“Te’von’s been through an incredible transformation,” said defensive coordinator Clark Lea. “No one should take credit for that but Te’von Coney.”

The long break since the end of the regular season at USC on Nov. 24 has allowed for Notre Dame to heal up from a long season, but Coney said he never felt like he was wearing down in November.

“I feel really good, and I feel healthy,” Coney said. “I could play 10 more games if we had to do it to complete the mission. Credit to our strength and conditioning staff for putting us in the position to be healthy and strong late in the season like this.”

Coney’s ascendance at Notre Dame has run parallel with the arrival of Lea. With Lea as linebackers coach under defensive coordinator Mike Elko last season, Coney totaled 116 tackles. From the spring to the fall in 2017, Coney went from a rotational player to the team’s leading tackler.

“Last year was an introduction for him in terms of what he’s capable of when he puts his mind to it, when he clears the static and just focuses on what he needs to do to be a great player,” Lea said. “This year has been a doubling down on that. His consistency and his work ethic and his leadership this year — that’s another thing — his interaction with our younger players to help them grow.

“Those are things that will build a legacy for him here. I know he’s proud of that.”

Finishing the mission

Coney doesn’t have the hardware to show for it, but he’s carried on the strong linebacker tradition at Notre Dame. That meant following in the footsteps of former Irish linebacker and Butkus Award winner Jaylon Smith.

It’s only fitting that Coney will play on Saturday where Smith plays his home games for the Dallas Cowboys. The two have kept in touch since being teammates in 2015.

“I love that guy,” Coney said. “I thank him all the time when I see him for all the things he did for me when he was here. Being there for me, answering all my questions, staying up late watching film with me.

“I’m still thankful to have him in my life now where I can call him today and show him a clip and he’ll critique it and show me how to get better. He’s always sending me text messages and motivating me to continue to get better.”

Coney’s production at the heart of Notre Dame’s defense was recognized by Sports Illustrated and Pro Football Focus with first-team All-America honors. CBS Sports (second team) and Associated Press (third team) all tabbed Coney as one of the top linebackers in the country on their All-America rosters.

The Butkus Award committee didn’t agree. Coney wasn’t even named as one of 10 semifinalists for the award given annually to college football’s top linebacker. Smith (2015) and Manti Te’o (2012) previously won the award at Notre Dame.

Smith tweeted about Coney being left off the finalist list in November.

“How they miss out on bro bro.️ Check da film️,” Smith wrote. “check da stats!”

Coney insisted he didn’t feel snubbed. His focus has been elsewhere.

“My two main goals when I decided to come back were to win a national championship and graduate,” Coney said. “Those were my two goals and those are the two things I’m working on. I just finished my first goal which was to graduate. Now I’m working on the second goal which is to be a national champion.”

Coney and the Irish need two more wins to make that second goal a reality. Clemson, a 12 1/2-point gambling favorite, stands in the way first.

Coney doesn’t mind those that doubt him and his teammates. He’ll just keep crossing his arms and wagging his finger.

“A lot of guys are hungry to get to that level of success here,” Coney said. “We won’t let anyone stop us from doing that.”

Notre Dame’s Te'von Coney (4) celebrates making a stop during the Notre Dame-Stanford NCAA college football game on Saturday, Sept. 29, 2018 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.
Notre Dame’s Te’Von Coney answers questions during the Cotton Bowl media day Thursday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.