It was not too long ago that anyone who followed the Irish worried about the future at linebacker.
8th year seniors Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox were about to graduate. Jarrett Grace, the lone inside linebacker with any kind of significant playing time under his belt, suffered a broken leg and his status for the 2014 season was extremely unclear.
One look at the potential depth chart for this season without those players at inside linebacker was more than a bit concerning. Yes, stud sophomore Jaylon Smith was going to be around, but it looked grim after that. Notre Dame's best returning player at the middle linebacker position was a former walk-on and the options at Sam were a former wide receiver and a converted safety that many felt should have never been offered a scholarship in the first place.
As horrible as the position sounded, the play of the linebackers this season has been very encouraging. Smith has been Smith, Joe Schmidt has emerged as a confident quarterback of the defense and has made plays in the middle, and the former receiver James Onwualu has shown some nice things at times too. (Like this hit)
All three are coming back next year as well as freshmen Nyles Morgan and Greer Martini. Those two freshmen have been buzzed about by people around the program and will be a year better next season. When you consider that Notre Dame should be adding three more 4 star linebackers to their depth chart in 2015 from this recruiting class, it makes you forget that the concern about linebacker ever existed in the first place.
The latest addition to the great linebacker haul of 2015 is inside linebacker Te'Von Coney. The easy narrative is to say that he's a Florida kid and it's important to land kids from Florida because "SEC the best" and all of that. But please ignore that for now and focus on Coney being the perfect final piece of the 2015 linebacker puzzle along with Asmar Bilal and Josh Barajas. He's the only pure inside linebacker of the three and is a great fit in Brian VanGorder's defense.
One reason he is a great fit is that he flashes the ability to be an explosive blitzer. Not only does he arrive with violence when he blitzes, but when he gets picked up, he doesn't stay picked up.
At any high level of football, linebackers are going to get blocked. The key is for them to not stay blocked and Coney is always getting off blocks.
Here's Coney in a game this season with his team backed up in the red zone.
Coney and the other inside linebacker are both coming on a blitz. The quarterback used a hard count, so the timing of the blitz was off giving the guard time to react and pick up Coney.
You can already see the force Coney brought with the blitz has knocked the guard off balance and he's using his hands to shed.
Coney got through that mess in the middle, got rid of his blocker, and then became free to make the tackle. So many other players blitz just like that and then for them, the play is over. That's not Coney. Even when he doesn't time his blitz as well as he would like, he is still able to make a positive out of a negative to make a play.
And just because, I had to include this next play from Coney to show how physical he is. I know a lot of people see a big hit and single that out as physical, but Coney is an all the time physical presence.
Coney is lined up as the Mike backer.
The right guard is pulling to the left on the play, which means that Coney knows he is going to have to look out for another lineman coming at him from that side because that is where the play is designed to be run.
Coney saw the guard headed his way, took him on, then proceeded to knock him right on his butt. That is a physical football player!
The back was supposed to run to the left side, but had to adjust so Coney was forced to adjust as well.
Coney wraps up the back and finishes the plays.
I remember Manti Te'o's first game at Notre Dame. He was in during garbage time, but he hit a kid harder than I had seen a Notre Dame player hit someone in a long time. I think the crowd got more excited for that hit than anything else that happened during the game. Now, physical plays like that happen all the time with Notre Dame's defense. Coney is just another guy who brings that physical mentality and style of play with him to South Bend.
I see how physical he is when I watch his film. I see him always find the football and do an outstanding job of working through the muck. I also got the chance to see his coverage skills in person at The Opening this summer where he did a great job running with Clemson commit Ray Ray McCloud after McCloud had made a couple of linebackers look silly trying to cover him. He's an extremely talented football player that does things like get off of blocks at a higher level than just about anyone else in the entire recruiting class. I'm excited thinking about he can develop into a very productive linebacker for the Irish.
The only thing I'm unsure of with Coney is what linebacker spot he is going to play at the college level. The Irish coaching staff had talked to him about coming in and competing at Will to start his career, but his best position might be the Mike. Joe Schmidt and Jaylon Smith will be back at Mike and Will next season so it's not a question of an immediate need. After watching more of Coney as a senior, I really think his best fit is to play the Mike. That means he would be competing directly with last year's top linebacker recruit, Nyles Morgan, for that same position. Or maybe Morgan can move to Will playing besied Coney at Mike. And don't forget Greer Martini, who came in as a Mike, but is now the 2nd team Will linebacker.
If this is the kind of problem we can expect at linebacker in a couple of years, then I don't think too many Irish fans are going to be worried about the future at the position any time soon.