Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney after winning Defensive Player of the Year at annual Echoes award dinner
Mike Berardino, IndyStar
SOUTH BEND – For Jaylon Smith, the straight line of positional greatness runs directly from Manti Te’o through him and on to Te’von Coney.
As a rising senior at Bishop Luers in Fort Wayne, Smith had already committed to Notre Dame when Te’o, a fellow middle linebacker, explained to him how it would go. This was back in the summer of 2012.
“Manti was the king on campus,” recalls Smith, now starring for the Dallas Cowboys. “He sought out me as who he was handing the keys to, who he was handing the torch to. He told me he just had a feeling that I was the guy who was going to help elevate this program and keep it going.”
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By 2015 Smith was an All-American with back-to-back 100-tackle seasons on his resume. Te’o, the 2012 Heisman Trophy runner-up after pushing 12-0 Notre Dame to an appearance in the national title game, could look back and see he had picked the right young man.
“I took that and ran with it, you know what I’m saying?” Smith says in a phone interview from Texas. “I was able to formulate it into my own and speak to Manti and was able to keep the franchise moving forward.”
That same experience was still fresh in Smith’s mind when he first met Coney and his father Timothy on an official visit in the fall of 2014. A senior standout at Palm Beach Gardens High School in South Florida, the younger Coney reminded Smith of his younger self.
Thirty-plus schools were going hard after Coney, including Miami and Florida, but Smith connected with him immediately. Coney announced his decision that October.
“When I first met Te, it was intuitive,” Smith says. “It was in my heart. It was just something that I knew: He was the guy I was going to pass the torch down to. I told him that from the jump, and he stayed humble and he took that torch and he ran with it.”
As the third-ranked Irish prepare to face No. 2 Clemson in a College Football Playoff semifinal on Dec. 29, they do so with a middle linebacker in the midst of back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. Like Smith and Te’o before him, Coney, voted Notre Dame’s Defensive Player of the Year, has been able to keep climbing the ladder.
“He got the torch when he was ready for it, and he was able to elevate the program and lead this defense and this team to an undefeated season,” Smith says. “I’m proud of him. He deserves everything that comes his way. He’s become his own man. He’s become his own player. He’s developed his own forms, even his own celebration. It’s something I love to see.”
LEAVING HIS LEGACY
Making all those tackles doesn’t just happen.
There is year-round preparation in the weight room, in the film room and on the practice field. After some early false starts, including an arrest for marijuana possession in late August of 2016, Coney eventually locked in on his goal.
In June Coney entered into a plea agreement in Fulton Superior Court and was given a six-month suspended sentence along with one year of probation and 48 hours of community service. He still owes a balance of $463 in court costs and filing fees, according to the Clerk’s Office online records.
He remembers a conversation with then linebackers coach and current defensive coordinator Clark Lea after the coach’s arrival from Wake Forest in the spring of 2017.
“He wanted to know what I wanted out of this experience, how special I wanted to be here?” Coney recalled at the team’s annual Echoes awards banquet. “Did I really want to leave a mark here? What was my reason for coming here?”
Coney’s answer that day in Lea’s office set the bar for the two seasons that followed.
“I wanted to have that legacy where I was one of the best linebackers to set foot on this campus,” Coney said. “I made my mind up. I was going to come in and I was going to trust the process and it was going to pay off for me.”
Lea remembers that conversation well.
“He made up his mind that he wanted to be great,” Lea said at Echoes. “He and I both remember the moment that it happened, and he never relented. The greatest part about his journey as a player is it didn’t come all at once.”
While Coney still takes ribbing about his affinity for fast food, there’s no denying the serious-minded approach he’s taken to football and to his studies. He graduated in the spring with a degree in philosophy and a minor in business economics.
Notre Dame linebacker Te’von Coney lays out the defensive goals with one game left in the regular season
Mike Berardino, IndyStar
He takes that same intensity into the film room.
“It’s important to work on our craft and get better and put it all together on Saturdays,” Coney says. “Film study is about just being locked in, bringing a notepad in and taking notes. I’ve worked a lot with coach Lea and some of the grad assistants.”
They have taught him to be a technician.
“I’ll watch myself on certain movements and see how I can move better,” Coney says. “Then I’m staying after practice and working on my (run) fits, working on my pass drops and just doing the things it’s going to take for me to get to the next level.”
He strongly considered jumping to the NFL after his junior season but opted to return in hopes of improving his draft status and making a run at a national championship. So far, so good.
“It was close,” Timothy Coney says of the NFL decision. “He was told between (rounds) 2 and 3, but he wanted to see better of himself and he understood the significance of what it means to have that degree from Notre Dame. That meant he could play with a clear mind, a clear conscience and he could just focus on football and come back for one year.”
Says Coney: “That was a huge advantage for me to be able to play my senior year without having that academic stress. I’m more focused on football.”
Smith doesn’t mince words when he predicts Coney “will be a great NFL player.”
“He’s going to do some great things,” Smith says. “He’s already done some great things, and he’s going to do some great things in these bowl games coming up.”
The elder Coney smiles.
“He’s making his mom and his dad proud of him,” he says, “that he can do this away from home and achieve what he always wanted to achieve. He’s one of these young men that take the game seriously and they take life seriously and he comes to play.”
Reaching the highest gear on the field, of course, requires a single-minded madness that all the great linebackers seem to know. From Butkus to Lambert to Singletary and on into the modern game and players like Smith and Carolina’s Luke Kuechly, it’s a ferocity that can only be generated from within.
Coney’s term for it: Going bonkers.
“I’ve always talked about going bonkers,” Coney says. “It’s just a mindset of going out there and dominating: I’m going to make every play that comes to me and the other defenders aren’t going to get anything.”
Asked to peg its origin, Coney thinks back to his junior year of high school.
“It’s something I came up with back at home,” Coney says. “Junior year I started playing really well. I had a huge year. I started telling people I was going bonkers. Kind of made a definition for it. That’s something I stuck with to this day and something that’s driven me to continue to get better.”
Not surprisingly, the idea of going bonkers has caught on with the rest of the nation’s ninth-ranked scoring defense.
“A few of the guys love the term,” Coney says. “It’s something we all preach to each other at hard times. Everything’s a mentality. So, having that mentality that ‘I want to go out there and make as many plays as I can to help my team win’ is always great for not only yourself but your team.”
Smith knows the feeling.
“He’s talking about going bonkers?” he says. “That means, like, you go crazy. Yeah, like you’re going HAM. You’re getting it in your bag, if you will. I just tell everybody, ‘I’m about that action.’ That means I’m really with it. I’m here. I’m here, and I ain’t going nowhere. We all got certain terminology that we use. That lets you know it’s ‘go’ time and you’ve got to flip that switch.”
Hearing his son mention “Going bonkers” again at the Echoes banquet brought a smile to Timothy Coney’s face. He just isn’t sure about the timeline Te’von offers.
“He used to say that old bonkers thing when we were playing rec ball at the Y,” the elder Coney says. “Te’ had to do be about 10. I was coaching. He was playing for the Gators in Junior Pee Wee League. I’d say, ‘Where you’d get that from?’ He was like, ‘Dad, that’s something I heard you say one time and I just kept that.’”
The mentality remains.
“When he said that (at Echoes), I said, ‘I thought you forgot about that,’” the elder Coney says. “He said, ‘No, I still kept that.’ I think that gives him a lot of encouragement. It reminds him of things he did as a young kid playing and his endurance to be the best at what he does. Football, he’s just home.”
IN THE MOMENT
Having Smith as a trusted mentor has been invaluable as well.
From that first spring semester of 2015, when Coney enrolled early and saw snow for the first time, on through the trials and tribulations of these past four seasons, their bond has remained strong.
“We talk a lot,” Coney says. “He wants me to stay in the moment. He knows this is a special thing we have going on. He doesn’t want me to look too far ahead. He knows what the future holds for me. He wants me just to stay focused.”
Text messages and phone calls have continued throughout the fall, even as Smith has enjoyed a breakout season of 114 tackles for the first-place Cowboys.
“He wants me to continue to work hard, how I got to this point,” Coney says. “He doesn’t want me to be complacent. He’s been leading me since Day 1 that I stepped on the campus. He’s not surprised by the things I’ve been doing. He just wants me to continue to work hard and to get even better.”
As fate would have it, Notre Dame will be playing this Cotton Bowl in AT&T Stadium, Smith’s current office. He plans to meet up with some of his old teammates and coaches when the Irish arrive in Dallas on Sunday evening.
It’s Coney, however, who will get the most attention.
“I’m so proud of him,” Smith says. “I remember the first time he came in. I took him under my wing, I told him exactly where he would be today. All he had to do was follow my lead and be a sponge — soak everything in — and he did that. He showed his greatness early, showed his eagerness to learn, and I knew I would be leaving the defense in great hands.”
BEAUTY IN THE STRUGGLE
Not even that late August arrest in 2016, as training camp was breaking and a 19-year-old Coney was heading into a 4-8 sophomore season, could shake Smith’s belief in his young protégé.
“There was no worrying on my end,” Smith says. “When all that stuff came down, it was just a matter of him learning and becoming a man, owning up to your actions and learning and growing from them.”
Starting senior safety Max Redfield was dismissed from the team shortly after the traffic stop that resulted in five arrests and misdemeanor charges for possession of marijuana. Redfield and two teammates, including current star running back Dexter Williams, reportedly faced an additional charge for possession of a handgun without a license.
The possession charge against Williams was dismissed in December 2017, and there is no record of a weapons charge against Williams on the Fulton Superior Court website.
Sophomore cornerback Ashton White, the driver of the car in which Coney was a passenger, played two games that season but has since transferred to the University of Buffalo.
“Humans, we’re not perfect,” Smith says. “We learn from making mistakes. That’s how we grow in this life is by making mistakes. But we’re at such a disadvantage with the profession that we have and the stage, the platforms that we’re on. Even at the collegiate level, you have to minimize those mistakes because everything is televised, everything is (put on social media).”
Smith’s guidance was never more vital to Coney than it was at that life crossroads.
“The biggest mistakes we make are through our 20s and 30s, but we just have to minimize them because of the stage that we’re on,” Smith says. “That’s just something that comes with it. (Coney) was able to learn from that and become the man he is today. He’s always been a great guy.
“I just (tried) to reassure him to learn from it and embrace it. There’s beauty in the struggle. That’s what I told him: ‘There’s beauty in the struggle.’ When you go through the struggle, you’ve got to find that beauty in it. That’s how you grow.”
Follow IndyStar Notre Dame Insider Mike Berardino on Twitter at @MikeBerardino.
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