The Urban Dictionary defines Middle Child Syndrome as one where “the older child gets all the awards (“Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”), the younger gets all the love, and the middle gets nothing.”
At 254 pounds, junior Ben Councell is better prepared physically to set the edge at his outside linebacker slot.
That middle seemed to be exactly where Notre Dame junior Dog (drop) linebacker Ben Councell has been over the past year, at least in terms of perception outside of the Fighting Irish football office. Entering this August camp, senior Danny Spond was the mainstay and incumbent at his position, the respected, proven performer.
Meanwhile, freshman five-star rated wunderkind Jaylon Smith is “the next big thing” on Notre Dame’s defensive side of the ball. Similar to the enrollment of Manti Te’o in 2009, Smith is projected to have a Pied Piper-like effect on the Fighting Irish defense in years to come.
And then there was the 6-4 1/2 , 254-pound Councell stuck in the middle. He entered this August not as experienced and proven as Spond nor as publicized and revered as Smith. In such a situation it’s easy to withdraw, but Councell has instead been flourishing. It’s easy to forget that he too came out of high school ranked as a top-100 and four-star prospect.
“Taking each day at a time was something I had to personally master,” said Councell after this Monday’s practice. “Coming into each practice, [and] not looking too far in advance. Just worry about getting better each and every day … I just came into this camp with the mind-set that I can’t worry about anybody else. There are a lot of things I had to work on.”
His newfound approach to the game apparently was conspicuous enough this spring to be classified by Diaco as the most improved player on defense. The Asheville, N.C. native Councell was not going to just fade quietly into the background and concede anything to either Spond or Smith. Now that Spond had to hang up his cleats for good because of a not yet specified health issue, Councell is not changing the approach or outlook that garnered him the accolades in the first place.
Last August when Spond first suffered severe migraine headaches that hospitalized him and even left his left side temporarily paralyzed, Councell was thrust into a prominent role. He finished with 10 tackles in the 12 games he played, but Spond started the final 11 contests after he was medically cleared and he performed with the consistency that kept Councell sidelined.
The drop linebacker position is maybe the most demanding one on defense in terms of versatility, and Councell was not yet quite primed for all of its job descriptions.
“You have to be big enough to come down and set the edge and do combat with the big linemen, 300 pounders, but be speedy enough to drop back and cover the slot receivers,” summarized Councell, who enrolled as a 220-pound freshmen two years ago but has since added about 35 pounds.
“I had to bulk up a little bit more and then adjusting with the speed. … It took a little bit of time,” Councell said. “And then of course just taking every day, just approaching each practice and not looking too far in advance and just worrying about each play, focusing on that one play and not looking at, ‘I’m sore today’, just busting your butt each and every day.”
A torn PCL and the need to put more meat on the hoof led to a redshirt year for Councell during his 2011 freshman campaign.
“There’s a lot of distractions,” Councell said. “The first and foremost as a freshman coming up is you're 10 hours away from home. You’ve got family, you’ve got school, you’ve got college — Notre Dame is not an easy school — but just having to categorize each and every thing.”
Then last year, his body was trying to catch up with his growth.
“I was always pretty quick, pretty fast for my size,” Councell said. “And then having that additional weight, you just start noticing your knees after practice start swelling up and your lower back starts cramping up and stuff like that.”
This spring, all the distractions and physical changes were in the rear-view mirror, which is what helped the staff take notice. So far this camp, Councell also has been holding his own better against an ultra-physical tight end such as classmate and 6-7, 270-pound Troy Niklas.
“We want dominance on defense and so I’m going to try to do that each and every play,” said Councell. “It’s been a great battle between the tight ends and outside linebackers.”
During Saturday’s practice, Smith seemed to be taking the bulk of reps with the No. 1 unit, but Irish head coach Kelly has indicated that Councell and Smith will both see their share of action at the position. At 230 pounds, Smith probably is not quite physically primed to “set the edge” 50 or 60 plays per game at this level.
“He’s a great player,” said Councell of Smith. “I learn from him, he learns from me.”’
Both should reach a fine middle ground.