Chicago Colleges: Ben Councell

Position battles to watch: No. 1

February, 21, 2014
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Our series looking at the top positions battles concludes with an area that will feature plenty of new faces in the middle of the Irish defense.

Inside linebacker

[+] EnlargeSchmidt
Chris Williams/Icon SMIFormer walk-on Joe Schmidt played significant action inside for the Irish last season.
No Manti Te'o in 2013 was a bigger adjustment than most expected. The veteran presence of Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese kept things familiar, with Fox moving to the Mike, losing his job to Jarrett Grace, then bouncing back to play some of the best football of his career to close the 2013 season.

Now both are gone, and while the Irish lose Prince Shembo at the starting Cat linebacker spot as well, it is presumed that Ishaq Williams will step in with the chance to fill those shoes. (Jaylon Smith was a freshman sensation as the starting Dog linebacker.)

Grace figured to be the starting Mike, but his recovery from a broken leg means that the doors are open this spring for others to step up and make their marks. Kendall Moore is back for a fifth season and figures to play a big role this spring. So does redshirt junior Joe Schmidt, the former walk-on who earned a scholarship entering last season and played significant action inside in 2013.

One other thing to consider is that there is a new defensive coordinator in Brian VanGorder. And although Brian Kelly said that the Irish will still operate out of a 3-4 base and go 4-3 about half the time, it remains to be seen how much more aggressive, if at all, VanGorder is with the personnel at hand.

There will probably be plenty of mixing and matching this spring, as the Irish try to find where some of their young guys are most effective -- notably, Michael Deeb and Doug Randolph, a pair of players who redshirted last season as freshmen.

Outside linebacker has a bit more depth, with Romeo Okwara and Ben Councell, who will likely miss the spring after tearing an ACL late last season. And a major reinforcement inside could be on the way this summer in Nyles Morgan, the No. 5 inside linebacker in the nation and Notre Dame's top recruit from the 2014 class.

But that's a topic for fall practice. In the spring, the Irish need to work on replenishing the position unit that takes the biggest hit from 2013 to 2014 in linebacker, and in particular, at inside linebacker. Several players have opportunities to cement significant roles for the 2014 season.

Notre Dame mailblog

January, 24, 2014
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It has been a while. What's on your minds?

Scott from St. Joseph, Mich., writes: Matt, disagree about Michigan State easily being the highlight of the season. The game was marred with questionable penalties and calling by MSU's staff. To me the highlight of the season was the second-half defense against USC. Being able to beat your biggest rival basically without a functional QB and on the hands of a defensive performance remnant of '12 was the highlight of the year for me.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame Celebration
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesPulling out a victory over Rose Bowl champion Michigan State was the biggest achievement for Notre Dame in 2013.
Matt Fortuna: I think both performances, to be fair, were far from aesthetically pleasing. And yes, we have to give Notre Dame's defense plenty of credit for its play in both games. But the circumstances are too big to ignore here. By beating Michigan State, Notre Dame helped reshape the national title picture. It was the only team to beat a very good Spartans squad, one that ended up winning the Rose Bowl. While it's always big to beat your archrival, let's also remember that USC was without Marqise Lee for the second half, committed 11 penalties and missed two field goals (from 40 and 46 yards), too. And I just can't erase the memory of the Fighting Irish offense coming to a standstill once Tommy Rees went down. No points from either team in the final 30 minutes of a primetime game? No thank you.

Matt from Pittsburgh writes: Matt, O-line starting 5 from LT-RT: Elmer, Hanratty, Martin, Lombard, Stanley? Also how do you see the D-line and linebackers forming out?

Matt Fortuna: That would probably be my early guess, though I'll keep a close eye on that group this spring since Martin will still be out. Matt Hegarty started at center in his place but provides plenty of flexibility, too, so it will be interesting to see where he fits into the picture next fall. My guess for defensive line would be Sheldon Day, Jarron Jones and Isaac Rochell, only because I don't know how ready Tony Springmann (ACL, infection) is. If he's 100 percent, it's easy to see him starting. And I'm anxious to watch Chase Hounshell, who saw the field as a true freshman in 2011 but has missed the last two seasons with shoulder injuries. Same with Jarrett Grace at the mike linebacker position (probably not this spring), with possibly Kendall Moore starting next to him. Jaylon Smith (dog) and Ishaq Williams (cat) will be expected to start if and when Brian VanGorder employs a 3-4 scheme, though he said last week he had not delved into schematics yet. Could we see Williams and/or Romeo Okwara play on the line some more? And where will Ben Councell fit into the picture once he's back from his ACL tear?

Jim from Chicago writes: Matt, What role do you see Torii Hunter Jr. having next year? Seemed to be the most athletic freshman WR before the injury. Can he work his way into the rotation with Daniels out in spring ball?

Matt Fortuna: He's the guy on offense, outside of Everett Golson, whom I most want to see this spring. The opportunities will be there for the taking with Daniels gone until the fall, and Hunter was able to battle back from that nasty leg injury to win offensive scout team player of the year. I'm also curious to see what kind of improvements Corey Robinson can make, given his size and potential. In limited practice viewings he seemed to be always making plays, but in games this season there were times where he looked like he could've used a couple of extra pounds.

Chris Kosiak (@C_K_42) writes: Justin Brent going to push for playing time next year? Or does he RS?

Matt Fortuna: It's probably too early to say, though, like Hunter, he'll have a great opportunity to showcase himself this spring with Daniels out. Last year Robinson and James Onwualu enrolled early and ended up taking advantage of the spring transfers of Davonte Neal and Justin Ferguson, resulting in playing time during the 2013 season. Notre Dame's receiving corps was young then and is young again now, so playing time will likely be there for the taking.

Michael Hughes (@designwithmike) writes: More important to ND success in '14: Red-zone execution or finding good to great defensive leadership?

Matt Fortuna: Good question. I'll go with red-zone execution, since I expect this Notre Dame team to rely much more on its offense than it has so far in the Brian Kelly era. And that means the Irish will have to capitalize on more red-zone opportunities and score more points. With Golson back at the helm after a semester spent training with quarterback guru George Whitfield Jr. and an improving backfield, I think you'll see the Irish take more chances offensively. None of this is to minimize the importance of defensive leadership, but that's just such an unknown factor at this point, especially since we have yet to see these players get coached by and respond to VanGorder, who seems nothing like Bob Diaco from a personality standpoint.

What we learned: Week 11

November, 10, 2013
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Here is what we take away from Notre Dame's 28-21 loss at Pittsburgh on Saturday:

1. Bye-bye BCS. People cans top working out the BCS scenarios. The Irish suffered a third and brutal loss, with two games left in the regular season. It is too early to put into perspective what kind of season this is/was for Notre Dame, but we can safely say that it won't be going to a major bowl game for the second straight season. Destinations could be New York, Detroit or perhaps San Diego for the San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, which now has an available spot after Army lost Saturday to Western Kentucky to fall to 3-7.

2. Close-game magic disappears. Notre Dame entered Saturday having won 10 straight games decided by seven points or fewer. That streak has come to an end with a loss in which the Irish turned the ball over three times and could not make the big plays late to stave off the upset. The Irish get a week off for another bye week and must re-group, as the physicality BYU and Stanford will bring in the final two weeks scream tight games all over them.

3. Targeting call rears ugly head. Notre Dame fell victim to the targeting ejection rule for the second time this year, as Ben Councell was ejected late in the Oklahoma game, and Stephon Tuitt got tossed after a hit on Tom Savage on Saturday. The call will be debated endlessly, but the Irish are lucky it happened in the first half and that Tuitt will be available for the full game against BYU in two weeks. And the future first-round draft pick might just be the highest-profile player in the country to get tossed for the new rule, which surely will be discussed more this offseason.

Watt, Day 'probable,' Williams 'doubtful'

October, 27, 2013
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Notre Dame escaped Air Force relatively unscathed, despite some close calls.

Chris Watt (knee) and Sheldon Day (ankle) are both probable for this Saturday's game against Navy, Brian Kelly said Sunday, while Ishaq Williams (knee) is doubtful.

Kelly also said Louis Nix III is questionable after not traveling to Saturday's game because of knee tendinitis.

[+] EnlargeTommy Rees
Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty ImagesNotre Dame's makeshift offensive line protected Tommy Rees well against Air Force.
"When you're playing an option team, as I said to you last week, it's really about getting out there and getting acclimated to what you're going to see," Kelly said during a teleconference. "If he has a few days of practice where we really like it, I could change that. But I would say it's questionable right now."

Ronnie Stanley also left Saturday's game, but Kelly said he was not concerned about his status moving forward.

Stanley and Watt were the latest injuries to an offensive line that was dealt a major blow earlier this week when right guard Christian Lombard was shut down for the season after having surgery to remove a herniated disc in his back. True freshman Steve Elmer started for Lombard but later found himself at right tackle in place of Stanley, with Matt Hegarty moving up to the right guard spot.

Conor Hanratty replaced Watt at left guard.

Romeo Okwara would appear to be the next man in at the No. 2 cat linebacker position in place of Williams, who actually started against the Falcons as a down lineman. But Kelly is keeping his options open.

"Well, we lost him really in the first couple drives. We played Romeo quite a bit," Kelly said. "We played Ben Councell. Justin Utupo played very well for us. We got a lot of guys involved."

Kelly sounded less worried about his team not being ranked in the latest AP poll, though the Irish are No. 25 in the coaches' poll.

"I think we're still in a pretty good position as long as we win," he said. "We've got to win more football games. We're only 6-2. I think if we take care of business and win week after week, we've got some quality teams in front of us, I think we're right where we need to be. Just keep winning football games. I really believe that as long as we just take care of week to week, we're going to be fine when it's all said and done."

Kelly: No alma mater after home losses

September, 29, 2013
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No alma mater after a loss.

That's Notre Dame's new home-game policy, instituted two years ago and cleared up Sunday by coach Brian Kelly during his teleconference, a day after some postgame confusion ensued following the Irish's 35-21 home loss to Oklahoma, with some players leaving immediately before most bee-lined toward the student section to engage in song.

The Irish's 10-game home winning streak was snapped by the Sooners so the players were not exactly versed in this exercise.

"A lot of our players were confused because they hadn't lost, a lot of them had never lost at home, and they weren't sure what to do," Kelly said. "I didn't communicate it to them clearly, what the protocol was, but we changed that protocol two years ago after a loss.

"We don't stay out on the field to sing the alma mater. We come in. And that wasn't communicated clearly. I wasn't thinking about losing a football game; it wasn't on my to-do list to go over with my team. It's a protocol we changed a couple years ago that we do not stay out on the field after the alma mater to sing after a loss."

Former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis had started the routine in the 2006 season, his second with the Irish.

"I just don't think it's appropriate to put your players after a defeat in a situation where they're exposed," Kelly said Sunday. "I want to get them in the locker room. It's important to talk to them, and I just felt like in those situations, after a loss, there's a lot of emotions. It's important to get the team back into the locker room and get them under my guidance."

Notes: Kelly will talk to ACC officials about Ben Councell's second-half ejection Saturday for targeting. Councell, by rule, has to sit the first half this coming Saturday against Arizona State. Romeo Okwara will likely take his spot as the No. 2 Dog linebacker. … Sheldon Day "tweaked" his ankle during warmups against Oklahoma, causing Kelly to sit him after he missed last week with an ankle sprain. TJ Jones "rolled" his ankle Saturday but should be fine moving forward. … Greg Bryant did not play because of a knee injury suffered this past week. … Tommy Rees is "certainly" Notre Dame's starting quarterback, with Andrew Hendrix serving as a complementary piece. Kelly said that, barring an injury situation to either signal-caller, he'd prefer not to play freshman Malik Zaire this season.

Irish stay perfect, turn attention to USC

November, 17, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- With Notre Dame's 38-0 win over Wake Forest all wrapped up, the stands still full before the alma mater and everyone soaking in one last moment inside the building where the Irish went undefeated for the first time in 14 years, public address announcer Mike Collins went over the postgame itinerary for the final time this season:

Drive home safely, he said.

Thank your ushers, he recommended.

"And BEAT S-C!" he implored, drawing the biggest roar of the night.

Yes, it comes down to this for these Irish: beat the rival Trojans two days after Thanksgiving and lock up the first perfect Notre Dame regular season in 24 years.

[+] EnlargeKapron Lewis-Moore
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesKapron Lewis-Moore's final regular-season game comes next week against USC.
"Definitely," receiver John Goodman said when asked if next week's opponent is fitting. "They're definitely a potent offense and pretty good defense, and that's something that we're going to have to game plan for. We're going to celebrate this win and take it all in with our families and everything, and then we're going to be fully focused on them, because one more game and things are going to work itself out."

The Irish don't control where they'll end up in the BCS standings. They need Kansas State or Oregon to fall to gain a national title berth. But a player like Goodman knows just how shocking it is to think that USC stands in Notre Dame's way next week, not the other way around.

Goodman came to Notre Dame in 2008, one year after a program-worst 3-9 season. USC had won the Rose Bowl in 2007, and the Trojans won it again during Goodman's first college season.

Both programs underwent coaching changes following the 2009 campaign, but USC seemed to weather NCAA sanctions, winning 10 games last season -- one of those wins coming at Notre Dame Stadium -- and entering this fall as the preseason's No. 1 team.

So yes, many figured next Saturday in Los Angeles could be where a national title ticket gets punched; few thought the visitors would be the ones with that opportunity.

"It's easier now because we have one game left," coach Brian Kelly said of avoiding big-picture talk. "So for us, the focus and all of those things, not looking ahead, we don't have to worry about that anymore. We have one game left on our schedule. Our guys know what's at stake now. This is about an undefeated season. They cannot do anything else but beat USC. The rest is up to other people to decide. But they can clearly focus.

"I told them tonight I'm proud of them. I voted them No. 1 in the country for a reason, because I think they're the best team in the country, and I think they played like that tonight."

For once at home, they did. The Irish scored on their first three possessions, jumping to a 21-0 lead just more than 10 minutes into the contest, a feat more noteworthy when considering that they had not scored more than 20 points in regulation in any of their five previous home games.

They had won those five contests by a combined 23 points, needing four total overtime periods to come away with the victories. This one was 31-0 at halftime, the final 30 minutes a mere formality. Everett Golson earned a seat for much of the second half after a 346-yard, three-touchdown performance.

Kelly took the circumstances to send some of his seniors out on a high, calling a timeout before Wake Forest took over at the 13:27 mark.

In came Sheldon Day, Chris Salvi and Ben Councell -- replacing Kapron Lewis-Moore, Zeke Motta and Manti Te'o.

Naturally, Te'o received the biggest ovation, taking his helmet off, blowing kisses to the student section and chest-bumping Lewis-Moore as he reached the sideline.

"Just magic," Te'o said. "Like everything's come full circle, just very grateful. For Coach to do that; he could have easily taken us out and not even put us on the field. But it was a TV timeout, and he said I'm going to send you guys out there and then I'm going to call a timeout, and one by one I'm going to sub you guys out. So that's the type of coach that Coach Kelly is. I'm just very lucky to play for him."

Te'o was all but USC-bound in high school, stunning all with his last-minute pick of the Irish. He will get to play his final regular-season college game at the Los Angeles Coliseum with perfection on the line, and the irony will be thicker than the stack of leis draped around his neck after the game.

All that stands between these Irish and perfection are the Trojans, all their energies and emotions pitted toward one goal: Beat SC.

"There is no next week," Te'o said. "It's USC. There is no game after that. If we take care of USC, we'll be fine. All we have to do is take care of USC and prepare the right way. USC is a really good team, as we all know. The USC-Notre Dame game is always a battle. So we understand that and we're going to prepare the way we know how."

Roster breakdown: Defense

March, 29, 2012
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Our breakdown of Notre Dame's 2012 roster continues today with the defensive side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The players: Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Sheldon Day, Tyler Stockton, Kona Schwenke

The incoming: Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTackle Louis Nix is a key cog in what should be a strong, experienced defensive line for Notre Dame.
The breakdown: Injuries forced all three current starters — Lynch, Nix and Tuitt — to play much more than expected last season, and none disappointed. They are all second-year players now, and their pass-rushing ability should have opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks on their heels. Lewis-Moore has been cleared for spring following a season-ending knee injury in 2011 but might not start, though he will likely see plenty of playing time as the line rotates. Hounshell (shoulder surgery) is not cleared yet, but he will likely see significant time this fall after playing as a true freshman last year as well.

LINEBACKERS

The players: Danny Spond, Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams, Anthony Rabasa, Carlo Calabrese, Jarrett Grace, Justin Utopo, Connor Little, Ben Councell, Joe Schmidt

The incoming: None

The breakdown: As we said with Tyler Eifert yesterday, everyone knows what Te'o is capable of, as he likely would have been a first-round NFL draft pick had he left school following his junior year. Fox and Calabrese shared the other inside role last year, and their experience should prove valuable. Shembo has been working at the cat spot this spring, and up-and-coming talents like Williams and Spond figure to see extensive playing time.

SECONDARY

The players: Bennett Jackson, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Dan McCarthy, Jalen Brown, Cam McDaniel, Eilar Hardy, Chris Salvi, Joe Romano, Will Salvi, Connor Cavalaris, Matthias Farley, Blake Breslau

The incoming: Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, C.J. Prosise, John Turner

The breakdown: The loss of Tee Shepard really stings this group, which is down to four scholarship corners with a combined zero career starts. Jackson and Wood are in position to take over as the new starters, and playing time last season should help with the transition. At safety, Slaughter and Motta saw plenty of time the last two seasons, and Slaughter in particular has shown a nose for the ball and the capability of providing a leadership force that Harrison Smith is leaving behind. Collinsworth will likely also see plenty of snaps after playing last year.

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