Expected critical players for the Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Scott Horner, DO NOT USE
SOUTH BEND – Just when think you know Te’von Coney, you realize you don’t.
That the Notre Dame senior heads into this college football season as one of the nation’s top linebackers — indeed, one of the best players on defense — was anything but inevitable.
For one thing, he could have submitted his name early for the NFL draft. He had already fulfilled a pledge to his family that he would graduate, doing so in 3 ½ years.
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Instead, he decided he needed more preparation, notably in pass coverage. As a graduate, he is taking a course in, among other things, China’s economy.
“I’m always interested in seeing new things,” Coney said.
It has always been so. That’s how a resident of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., ends up at Notre Dame. Everyone thought he would pick a college near home, like Florida or Miami.
A visit to Notre Dame influenced that decision. Included in the itinerary was a meeting in the office of athletic director Jack Swarbrick. Swarbrick said he remembers the encounter “quite vividly,” partly because of Coney’s father, Tim Coney.
You know that cliché about making not a four-year decision, but a 40-year decision? That’s what the Coneys were doing. They understood the football component, Swarbrick said, but also of “the non-football situation and the things we could do, and the things we could do for Te’von for the rest of his life.”
So he “shocked the nation” by choosing the Fighting Irish, according to his mother, Cloette Bob. It was only a few weeks ago she revealed to her son that she sobbed when he first left home.
“I cried so hard. Yes, I did,” she said.
The mother said Te’von looked like “a little man” before he grew into one. The thing about her son, she said, is he decided he would do something and just did it.
He has three older siblings, including brother Timothy Jr., a former football player. When Te’von was 5, he was a running back in a youth league for those older than age 6. As a child, he did push-ups in his room, without parental prodding.
The first time he picked up a bat, he hit balls over the fence. Adults were incredulous: You sure he has never played baseball? Nope, never. Yet he was not exactly a physical specimen.
“He was a little scrawny something,” his father said.
On one trip to a department store, 12-year-old Te’von decided to address that. He and his father spotted a pull-up bar in a box in the corner, so they bought it and lugged it home. It was another tool to get better.
And he needed to get better. He transferred from nearby Dwyer High School to Palm Beach Gardens as a sophomore, where coach Rob Freeman inherited a lanky youth who was not yet a big-time prospect. Indeed, one recruiter from a Power 5 school viewed tape of Coney and was not interested.
In Coney’s junior season, transformation occurred. He lifted weights, worked out harder, studied more. Freeman realized his linebacker might have a college football future.
“You could tell he’s the dominating force out on the field,” said Freeman, now offensive coordinator at Jupiter High School. “That’s when it all kind of opened up.”
It really opened up in the playoffs. Remember, football is to Florida what basketball is to Indiana. And Palm Beach Gardens, after a 6-4 regular season, unexpectedly reached the Class 8A semifinals before losing to eventual state champion South Dade.
Coney finished that year with 172 tackles, and the next year with 136. He was on at least two Top 300 lists and played in the All-American Bowl in St. Petersburg, Fla. He graduated from high school early and enrolled in time for Notre Dame’s 2015 spring practice.
His first 21 months in Indiana were, uh, bumpy. He was largely confined to special teams as a freshman, and a shoulder injury against Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl sidelined him for spring 2016. In August of that year, he and four teammates were arrested for possession of marijuana after a traffic stop in Fulton County. In a plea agreement in June, he was sentenced to a year of probation.
“After making a mistake, you kind of put everything in perspective,” Coney said. “Just find out what I really wanted to be and what I wanted to be in life. I put all those things first. Ever since then, everything has been awesome for me.”
The arrest was a surprise to Coney’s parents, who said they never had any trouble with their son. They knew his whereabouts, his friends, his friends’ parents.
“A lot of kids don’t learn from mistakes,” his mother said. “And Te’von did.”
He became a sophomore starter but, after a change in defensive coaching staff, returned to a reserve role to begin last season. NFL prospect? At 6-1, 240 pounds, he barely fulfills minimum size requirements.
Then the former high school sprinter went on to lead the team in tackles (116) and tackles for loss (13). His linebacker coach, Clark Lea, became his defensive coordinator — the fourth for the Irish in three years. Lea’s presence, too, influenced Coney to return. Lea said Coney is as explosive as any player he has coached.
“It’s like he got struck by a lightning bolt on game day,” Lea said. “There’s so much twitch and innate football instinct in that body.”
Coney said he wants to intercept passes and become more of a “game-changer.” There was never a question of whether he would be all-in after forgoing the NFL, Lea said. What the coach did do, though, was challenge the linebacker to elevate the entire defense.
Upon moving to inside linebacker, Coney said he must “set the standard” and be responsible for where 10 teammates are on each snap. He made accountability a priority, arriving before 6:45 each morning to make sure others in his offseason group checked in on time, according to coach Brian Kelly.
“I mean, the guy loves football,” Lea said. “Once you get to practice and put the ball down, he loves it.
“I think he’s focused on a legacy here, too. He wants to leave an imprint here. It hasn’t been perfect for him at Notre Dame. We all see opportunities to redefine ourselves. I’ve really been impressed by his approach this summer.”
Coney overlapped one year with the Dallas Cowboys’ Jaylon Smith, a Butkus Award winner and IndyStar Mr. Football from Fort Wayne Bishop Luers. Smith was a “big brother figure,” Coney said, and supplied a template as a linebacker and leader. Kelly has urged Coney to be more vocal, although the linebacker has not needed to speak to be heard.
As long ago as junior high school, other students skipped their own lunch break just so they could go to lunch with Coney, his father said. Charisma is there, or it isn’t.
“This kid, he draws people to him,” Tim Coney said.
Palm Beach Gardens has a population of about 54,000 and is in Palm Beach County, the fifth-most affluent county in Florida. But the county has four cities — not Palm Beach Gardens — that rank among the 40 most dangerous in the country, according to Neighborhood Scout. (Indianapolis is 29th.)
Kickoff times in the area were moved up after two adult males (not students) were shot at a recent game between Dwyer, where Coney once attended, and Palm Beach Central. There are tough neighborhoods there. Coney’s former teachers learned he was tougher.
“We kind of marvel at what he’s done,” Freeman said. “It falls in line with the fact that he’s taken advantage of his opportunity. We’ve seen guys that have, quite frankly, blown their opportunity. Maybe they weren’t mature enough to handle it. It’s really a great story.”
Coney is working on new chapters.
Email IndyStar reporter David Woods at [email protected] or call (317) 444-6195. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidWoods007.
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