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Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 4 Te’von Coney, linebacker, 2017’s leading tackler

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1 1/8, 238 pounds
2018-19 year, eligibility: Coney has played in 37 of a possible 38 career games, looking to bring both those numbers past 50 in his fourth and final season.
Depth chart: Coney will move to Mike linebacker after spending much of his career as the Buck. That change will make him more a focal point on the defense while keeping him in the middle of nearly every play.
Recruiting: Coney narrowed his choices to Notre Dame and Florida, also holding offers from Clemson, Miami and Alabama. When the Gators fired head coach Will Muschamp, the decision became an easier one for the Under Armour All-American considered the No. 6 inside linebacker and No. 118 overall prospect by rivals.com.

CAREER TO DATE
For a career filled with hiccups and hurdles, Coney’s stats have progressed in a rather orthodox fashion. As an early-enrolled freshman, he spent much of his time on kickoff coverage until Jaylon Smith suffered an injury early in the 2015 Fiesta Bowl. At that point, it seemed Coney would have a high-profile chance to shine. Instead, he injured his shoulder plays later, thus costing him the following spring’s practices.

Then, an arrest for marijuana possession put him in the proverbial doghouse before the 2016 season, though Coney still established himself as a part-time starter, a role he carried into last season. By the midseason point, though, Coney took over as the starting Buck linebacker, splitting time with Greer Martini. Despite playing many snaps fewer — as in hundreds — than the likes of Drue Tranquill or Nyles Morgan, Coney led the Irish in tackles in 2017 with 116.

2015: 12 games; 13 tackles with 0.5 for loss.
2016: 12 games, nine starts; 62 tackles with 1.5 for loss.
2017: 13 games, starting seven of the final eight with the exception being against Navy and its triple-option offense; 116 tackles with 13 for loss and three sacks, one of which forced a fumble on USC’s first play from scrimmage, a turnover Coney recovered to set up Notre Dame’s first touchdown. He capped the year with 17 tackles in the Citrus Bowl victory against LSU.

QUOTE(S)
Coney considered heading to the NFL this offseason, instead opting for another year of development under linebackers coach and now-defensive coordinator Clark Lea. A second season of triple-digit tackles, one in which he stars more than his under-the-radar performance in 2017, could raise Coney’s professional profile while also obviously helping the Irish as a whole.

Comparing this spring to last spring, Coney has already begun down that path, per head coach Brian Kelly.

“The first [change] would be moving to the Mike linebacker position, which we think is a natural position on the next level for him,” Kelly said in late March. “… From a development standpoint, he was missing in action last spring. We didn’t know where he was. He did not have a very good spring. Consequently, that put him behind in August. He didn’t come out as a starter until week five.

“What we wanted to do was show how important it was for him to have a great spring. He is somebody who is unmistakable on the field whereas last year at this time, I didn’t even know he was out there. … Building off of that, having a really good finish to his season last year, and then coming into this spring and continuing that elevation as a marquee player on our defense.”

The most-significant piece of development needed by Coney for both this season and his future comes against the pass, an area in which Lea shouldered some of the blame for Coney’s subpar showing last fall.

“He’s a guy that has had a different level of attention to detail,” Lea said the week before the Blue-Gold Game. “… He was spread thin in the fall, but he’s really worked to improve himself as a player every day. I’ve not sensed one ounce of holding back or cruising to the finish here.”

WHAT WAS PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“A cynic here might wonder if Martini will get the initial starting nod as a default to a captain. Even if that is the case — and this is not to say it is — he will play well; Coney will need to earn the chance to start.

“He is certainly capable of that, but whether he does or not, Coney will see plenty of action this season. Notre Dame just does not have other options. … Coney is essentially the entire second-unit at linebacker. Provided Morgan, Martini and Coney all stay healthy, that is not an item of concern. A rotation of those three in nearly any ratio should serve the Irish well.

“… Both Morgan and Martini will be out of eligibility following 2017, all but guaranteeing Coney a starting gig next season, most likely in Martini’s role. … Coney will be counted on to complement Tranquill as the veterans on what will continue to be a young defense.

“Knowing that clear future is ahead of him should push Coney to stay engaged in all facets this season.”

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2018 OUTLOOK
It is hard to fathom a 100-plus tackle season with double-digit tackles for loss receiving as little praise as Coney’s did last season. Some of that tied to him not starting for the first month of the year; some of related to the lack of big-play moments included in those 116 tackles. Coney was consistent, shockingly consistent, but not necessarily stellar.

The Irish will want more than three sacks and a hand in one turnover from Coney this season. If the defense is to take the leap increasingly expected of it, its leading tackler will also need to provide some fireworks.

His inefficiencies against the pass in the past make it unlikely Coney will snag a few interceptions, but breaking up a couple passes would be a start. Combine that with a handful of sacks and multiple fumbles to go along with his 100 tackles, and Coney could find himself in some All-American conversations.

A mere tackling machine will not warrant such notice, will not rise in draft projections and will not push Notre Dame toward the College Football Playoff. Coney will need to make more highlight-worthy plays this season to accomplish the things he came back to school for.

DOWN THE ROAD
Coney’s next step is clearly the NFL. The question will be how high he can raise his draft stock. Among interior linebackers, the top of the draft-eligible pack includes names like Shaq Quarterman (Miami), T.J. Edwards (Wisconsin) and Cameron Smith (USC). They had five, seven and three pass breakups last season, respectively, not to mention Edwards’ four interceptions. They made plays against the NFL’s preferred means of offense.

Coney’s best method of moving up draft boards is to strengthen his pass defense as Lea implied was already occurring in the spring.

NOTRE DAME 99-to-2:
No. 99 Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle, senior
No. 98 Ja’Mion Franklin, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 97 Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle, senior
No. 95 Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 94 Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 91 Ade Ogundeji, defensive end, junior
No. 89 Brock Wright, tight end, sophomore
No. 88 Javon McKinley, receiver, junior
No. 87 Michael Young, receiver, sophomore
No. 86 Alizé Mack, tight end, senior
No. 85 George Takacs, tight end, early-enrolled freshman
No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 84 Cole Kmet, tight end, sophomore
No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver, junior
No. 82 Nic Weishar, tight end, fifth-year senior
No. 81 Miles Boykin, receiver, senior
No. 80 Micah Jones, receiver, early-enrolled freshman
No. 78 Tommy Kraemer, right guard, junior
No. 76 Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 75 Josh Lugg, offensive lineman, sophomore
No. 74 Liam Eichenberg, starting left tackle, junior
No. 72 Robert Hainsey, right tackle, sophomore
No. 71 Alex Bars, left guard and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 70 Luke Jones, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 69 Aaron Banks, offensive tackle, sophomore
No. 68 Jarrett Patterson, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 60 Cole Mabry, offensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 57 Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman, senior
No. 57 (theoretically) Jayson Ademilola, defensive tackle, incoming freshman
No. 56 John Dirksen, offensive lineman, incoming freshman
No. 55 Jonathan Bonner, defensive tackle, fifth-year senior
No. 54 John Shannon, long snapper, junior
No. 53 Khalid Kareem, defensive end, junior
No. 53 Sam Mustipher, center and captain, fifth-year senior
No. 52 Bo Bauer, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 47 Kofi Wardlow, defensive end, sophomore
No. 45 Jonathan Jones, linebacker, junior
No. 44 Jamir Jones, defensive end, junior
No. 42 Julian Okwara, defensive end, junior
No. 41 Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle, sophomore
No. 40 Drew White, linebacker, sophomore
No. 39 Jonathan Doerer, kickoff specialist, sophomore
No. 34 Jahmir Smith, running back, early-enrolled freshman
No. 33 Shayne Simon, linebacker, incoming freshman
No. 31 Jack Lamb, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 30 Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, linebacker, sophomore
No. 29 Ovie Oghoufo, linebacker, early-enrolled freshman
No. 28 Nicco Fertitta, safety, senior
No. 27 Julian Love, cornerback, junior, second-team All-American
No. 25 Braden Lenzy, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 24 Tommy Tremble, tight end, incoming freshman
No. 24 Nick Coleman, defensive back, senior
No. 23 Drue Tranquill, linebacker, two-time captain, fifth-year senior
No. 22 Asmar Bilal, rover, senior
No. 21 Jalen Elliott, safety, junior
No. 20 Shaun Crawford, nickelback, senior
No. 20 C’Bo Flemister, running back, incoming freshman
No. 19 Justin Yoon, placekicker, senior
No. 19 Justin Ademilola, defensive end, incoming freshman
No. 18 Joe Wilkins, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 17 Isaiah Robertson, safety-turned-rover, sophomore
No. 16 Noah Boykin, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 15 D.J. Morgan, safety-turned-linebacker, junior
No. 15 Phil Jurkovec, quarterback, consensus four-star incoming freshman
No. 14 Devin Studstill, safety, junior
No. 13 Lawrence Keys, receiver, incoming freshman
No. 13 Paul Moala, local safety, incoming freshman
No. 12 DJ Brown, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 12 Ian Book, quarterback, junior
No. 11 Alohi Gilman, safety, Navy transfer
No. 10 Tariq Bracy, cornerback, incoming freshman
No. 10 Chris Finke, receiver, senior, former walk-on
No. 9 Daelin Hayes, defensive end, junior
No. 8 Jafar Armstrong, running back/receiver, sophomore
No. 8 Donte Vaughn, cornerback, junior
No. 7 Brandon Wimbush, quarterback, senior
No. 7 Derrik Allen, consensus four-star safety, incoming freshman
No. 6 Tony Jones, running back, junior
No. 5 Troy Pride, cornerback, junior

MEDICAL EXEMPTION
No. 35 David Adams, linebacker, sophomore

OUTGOING TRANSFER
No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver, outgoing transfer

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Early NFL departures hit Georgia, Michigan and Stanford hardest

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A sign of a strong program is one that loses players to the NFL before they exhaust eligibility. In that vein, Notre Dame lost a consensus first-team All-American cornerback, its leading receiver and a long-time tease of a tight end. The last of those (Alizé Mack) was never expected back for a fifth season; replacing Miles Boykin’s production is certainly within reason; and a consensus first-team All-American should be expected to take the route junior Julian Love has.

Even with that expectation, losing Love — and to a lesser extent, Boykin — alters the natural roster cycle, the inherent design intended during recruiting. Reloading is always the hope, the next intention, but very rarely is the young backup comparable to the near professional, even by the end of the coming season.

Nonetheless, the Irish got off easy this cycle compared to four of their 2019 opponents …

GEORGIA: Junior running back Elijah Holyfield, the Bulldogs’ second-leading rusher, departs after gaining 1,018 rushing yards with seven touchdowns on 6.4 yards per carry this season. Frankly, that is the least of Georgia’s losses. Three of quarterback Jake Fromm’s four favorite targets will leave eligibility on the figurative table:

— Junior receiver Riley Ridley: 44 catches for 570 yards and nine touchdowns in 2018.
— Junior receiver Mecole Hardman: 34 catches for 532 yards and seven touchdowns.
— Junior tight end Isaac Nauta: 30 catches for 430 yards and three touchdowns.

Without running back Karan Higdon, Michigan will presumably rely on its passing game more in 2019, quarterback Shea Patterson’s second season as a Wolverine. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

MICHIGAN: The Wolverines got good news when quarterback Shea Patterson opted to return for 2019, but losing leading-rusher Karan Higdon (1,178 yards, 10 touchdowns, 5.3 average) will be an issue head coach Jim Harbaugh undoubtedly hoped to avoid. Junior tight end Zach Gentry, Patterson’s third-most prolific target with 32 catches for 514 yards and two scores, will also head to the next level.

On the flip side, Harbaugh could have hoped linebacker Devin Bush (team-leading 80 tackles with 9.5 for loss including five sacks), defensive end Rashan Gary (44 tackles with seven for loss including 3.5 sacks) or linebacker David Long (17 tackles with one interception) might return, but no such luck for Michigan.

Duke junior quarterback Daniel Jones will head to the NFL after his third season as a starter, immediately lowering the Blue Devils’ 2019 expectations. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

DUKE: Junior linebacker Joe Giles-Harris paced the Blue Devils with 81 tackles, including seven for loss with one sack, doing so in only nine games. But losing Giles-Harris is hardly the concern for Duke. The decision to turn pro from quarterback Daniel Jones is.

In his third year as a starter, the junior fought through a broken collarbone to still play in 11 games in 2018, completing 60.5 percent of his passes for 2,674 yards and 22 touchdowns with nine interceptions. He added 319 rushing yards and three touchdowns.

Jones’ decision may come as a surprise, but it is one that should work out well for both him and Notre Dame. Some mock drafts project him as a top-10 pick. In a draft light on quarterbacks — partly because Oregon’s Justin Herbert returned for another season, yet already somewhat counteracted by the Monday draft entry from Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray — Jones could end up being the third or fourth passer picked.

BOSTON COLLEGE: The Eagles will say farewell to junior cornerback Hemp Cheevers after he notched seven interceptions this season, returning one for a touchdown, to go along with 39 tackles.

STANFORD: This will seem like the Cardinal lost a lot to the NFL draft, but it could have been worse: As the departures mounted, so did speculation junior quarterback K.J. Costello might follow them. He opted not to.

Stanford will be without running back Bryce Love after his prodigious two seasons as the starter. Consider that a loss akin to the Irish Love, the inevitable price of enjoying the success in the first place.

Junior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside will capitalize on his breakout season of 1,059 yards and 14 touchdowns, depriving Costello of his favorite jump-ball threat.

Junior tight end Kaden Smith will also head to the next level, in large part thanks to his 47 catches for 635 yards and two touchdowns this past season.

Louisville, New Mexico, Virginia, Bowling Green, USC, Virginia Tech and Navy all did not lose anyone early or pseudo-early to the NFL draft.

Autry Denson leaves Notre Dame to take over at Charleston Southern

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Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher will no longer coach its current running backs. After four seasons at his alma mater, Autry Denson has been named the head coach at Charleston Southern, an FCS-level program, per a release Monday afternoon.

The second-longest tenured coach on Brian Kelly’s staff (behind only defensive line coach Mike Elston; tied with cornerbacks coach Todd Lyght), Denson had produced quality Irish backs, peaking with Josh Adams’ 1,430 rushing yards in 2017, leading an offense that averaged 269.5 rushing yards per game.

“I am so excited for Autry as he embarks on the next step of his coaching career as the new head coach at Charleston Southern,” Kelly said in a statement. “He has done a tremendous job for us during his time at Notre Dame.

“He not only developed our running backs to produce at a high level on the field, but he was also instrumental in their growth as young men.”

Only Adams and C.J. Prosise broke 1,000 rushing yards in a season under Denson, though Dexter Williams gained 995 in only nine games this past season. A third-round pick in 2016, Prosise has spent his entire career with the Seattle Seahawks, while Adams rushed for 511 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Williams should join them in the NFL in April’s draft.

All of them paled in comparison to Denson’s college days, a career that saw him gain 4,318 rushing yards, 43 touchdowns and three seasons of more than 1,000 rushing yards. A 1998 All-American, Denson then spent five years in the NFL.

Denson began his coaching career at the FCS level at Bethune-Cookman in Daytona Beach, Fla., a couple hundred miles up the coast from his hometown outside of Miami.

“I was drawn to Charleston Southern by the vision of this great Christian university of integrating faith in learning, leading and serving,” Denson said. “As a result, I knew this could be a place where I could build and lead a program to honor Christ by operating with character, integrity, transparency, accountability and community.”

Charleston Southern went 5-6 in 2018 under Mark Tucker, who went 11-11 in two seasons before resigning last month.

Program-record 10 early enrollees mark the beginning of Notre Dame’s 2019

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With the early enrollment of 10 freshmen, Notre Dame’s 2019 has begun. Usually this sparks a debate among outsiders pitting the advantages of early enrollment against the high school experiences lost. Not only is that an argument held by those far from both the program and high school, but it is also one missing the team-wide edge gained.

With 10 additional scholarship bodies this spring, the Irish will have 77 on hand, as of now. A total of 16 of those will be offensive linemen, including four mid-year arrivals. Whereas there are some springs in which Notre Dame struggles to field a second unit on its offensive line, this March and April will feature three complete units with a body to spare.

There will be just as many defensive lines, with three early enrollees bringing the total up to 14 scholarship players knocking around this spring, though the health of rising sophomore Ja’Mion Franklin (quad) may drop that a notch.

Either way, the Irish will have more depth on hand this spring than usual. The 10 freshmen spurning a semester of high school will still have their chance at added weight room time, meaningful spring repetitions and theoretical development, but those rewards can end up as much hypothetical as realized. It is nearly impossible to predict if running back Kyren Williams (pictured above) will be tangibly more developed in September because he got to South Bend in January. Linebacker Jack Kiser is unlikely to play much as a freshman in either scenario; punter Jay Bramblett is certainly going to no matter what. However, the opportunity to have thorough practices with up-front depth should only enhance the effects of this spring.

None of this will ever become exactly normal, even if Notre Dame has increased its early enrollee numbers from beginning in 2006 to seven last season and now these 10. Of this grouping, some are the first to make this exact leap in their high school’s history. Many private schools do not make such possible. For that matter, this influx speaks to this group in particular, not an overall trend.

It is, nonetheless, a group receiving many of the same praises Irish head coach Brian Kelly has offered in years past and will undoubtedly offer as long as he remains in this post.

“These guys are serious about what they are doing,” Kelly said in December’s early signing period. “They are signing up for getting a degree and winning a national championship. These are not silly guys. These are guys that are really focused on coming here to win a national championship.”

Of course, that is always Kelly’s stated goal. The national championship game may be 364 days from now, but that process has already begun anew.

The 10 early enrollees:
Offensive tackles Quinn Carroll and Andrew Kristofic
Offensive guard John Olmstead
Center Zeke Correll
Running back Kyren Williams
Defensive tackles Jacob Lacey and Hunter Spears
Defensive end NaNa Osafo-Mensah
Linebacker Jack Kiser
Punter Jay Bramblett

Claypool’s return welcome news for Notre Dame

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Notre Dame will need to replace only one receiver next season. Chase Claypool announced he will return for his senior season Thursday evening. This may have been long presumed, but less qualified players have entered the NFL draft with eligibility remaining in years past.

With the departure of Miles Boykin, Claypool will become the leading Irish target, the prime candidate to replace Boykin’s 59 catches for 872 yards and eight touchdowns. A year ago, asking Claypool to put up numbers like that would have been a leap beyond reason, but after a 2018 season in which he accounted for 50 catches, 639 yards and four touchdowns, Claypool becoming an offense’s best playmaker is fathomable beyond just pinning those hopes on the Canadian native’s athleticism.

Claypool’s career began as a special teams star, making 11 tackles in 2016, while catching only five passes for 81 yards. An inconsistent sophomore season followed, managing 29 catches for 402 yards and two touchdowns. Those may sound like solid numbers, but they include only five catches in the season’s final four games and only one game with more than four catches all season.

Claypool had at least four catches in seven games this season, all started by junior quarterback Ian Book. With Book throwing, Claypool averaged 4.67 catches and 58.56 yards per game, highlighted by eight for 130 at Northwestern.

Claypool and current senior Chris Finke will presumably both start again, while one of a number of rising sophomores could step in either for Boykin on the boundary or for Claypool on the field side with Claypool possibly taking over boundary duties.

With five catches for 90 yards in his freshman campaign and a skill set similar to Boykin’s, Kevin Austin may be the front-runner for that starting role.