Ben Councell expected to play last season. He didn’t.
The sophomore didn’t expect to start this season. He might.
That’s been the outside linebacker’s heady trip since he arrived in South Bend last summer as an underweight project with perfect fit potential for Notre Dame’s 3-4 scheme. Councell has put on 20 pounds since, found his footing in the classroom and recovered from a torn right PCL last September that he simply braced up and kept practicing on.
And with Danny Spond’s future unclear following a scary practice injury that was first labeled a concussion by head coach Brian Kelly only to have the diagnosis changed to uncertain, Councell could spend the next three weeks running with the starting defense.
In fact, when Notre Dame scrimmaged its reserves on Saturday morning, Councell stood and watched most of the work along with the rest of the first team.
“It’s probably the last thing I would have expected coming in from last year red shirting, now taking reps with the ones,” Councell said. “Yeah, the urgency has definitely stepped up. Coach (Bob) Diaco has been drilling me just like I was a one in meetings. Drilling me a lot harder and making sure I do the little things right.”
Councell sat out all last season after flirting with special teams work early. He tore his right PCL during Michigan week, then hobbled through practice the next day. He said he didn’t miss a workout, postponing rehab until last winter.
“Apparently you don’t need a PCL,” Councell said. “I don’t have one.”
Now 20 pounds heavier and finally comfortable in his new frame, Councell seems poised to build on his freshman season of watching. Unlike last season when Prince Shembo was almost a force fit at dog linebacker, where he admittedly struggled with pass drops, Councell says coverage is the strength of his game.
“I think what comes easiest, I think re-rerouting and dropping into coverage,” Councell said. “I think I’ve got to put on a little more weight to feel comfortable. I’ve been going against Troy (Niklas), trying to match up against him, he’s probably the biggest tight end you’ll see out there. We’ve been going pretty good at it. He’ll drive me back pretty good, so I want to put on a little more weight so I can play the run a little better.”
Notre Dame moved Romeo Okwara from rush linebacker (cat) to drop linebacker (dog) along with CJ Prosise from safety. While the Irish would ideally keep both out of the regular rotation on defense, the freshman pair may be turning heads and giving the Irish some emergency depth.
“I think we’re pleased (with Councell),” Kelly said. “Actually, all three of those guys have got a ton of work for us … Romeo is long, does a great job in coverage. And then CJ is a very athletic kid, very smart.”
For those two freshmen, playing time might be hard to come by. But for Councell, who’s settled into the football program and University after coming from the mountains of Asheville, N.C., sticking with the starting defense almost feels assured.
At a minimum, Councell believes he’s found his stride.
“I feel like I’m starting to hit now,” Councell said. “Especially during the beginning. I’d get the play call and I’d line up trying to figure out what I had to do, then the ball’s snapped. Where as now I get the play call, I know what I’ve got to do, I can start reading the formation doing all the pre-snap stuff so when the ball’s snapped I know exactly.”