No player on Notre Dame’s roster has scaled the depth chart farther from 2011 to 2012 than sophomore Dog linebacker Ben Councell.
Sophomore Ben Councell is suddenly the top dog at his position.
• Last year’s starter, junior Prince Shembo, was shifted to his more natural Cat linebacker spot, where his pass rushing skills can be better utilized at the hybrid outside linebacker/defensive end slot to replace the graduated Darius Fleming.
• Classmate Troy Niklas, who started in last year’s 31-13 victory versus Michigan State, moved to tight end, where a more physical presence was needed to aid the in-line blocking while All-America Tyler Eifert often gets split out.
• Junior Danny Spond, the heir apparent, had to leave the practice field on Aug. 8 with what was diagnosed as a severe migraine headache. Although he has returned to the field this week as a spectator, Spond is expected to be held out a couple of more weeks as a precautionary measure.
“It’s probably the last thing I would have thought of coming in from last year — red-shirting to taking reps with the ones,” Councell admitted “The urgency definitely has stepped up … [They’re] drilling me a lot harder.”
A sudden surge isn’t novel to the Asheville, N.C. native. Relatively overshadowed when he participated in the Shrine Bowl of the Carolinas, featuring the premier players in North Carolina and South Carolina, after his senior season, Councell put on a show-stopping performance with 13 tackles, including a sack, plus a blocked punt.
Possessing the speed and athletic skills to play at the major college level was not an issue to Councell, but at 220 pounds he needed much more strength, especially in comparison to Niklas, before he would be better prepared for active duty. His progress also was hampered some last season when during preparation for Michigan in the second week, he tore a posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) .
Although Councell said he didn’t miss any practices, the setback allowed him to concentrate more on academics — he had been home-schooled until his sophomore year in high school — the weight room and the playbook.
“[They] stuck a brace on the day [it happened] and I was out there limping around,” he said of the injury that didn’t require surgery. “Apparently, you don’t need a PCL.”
He gained 20 pounds to report at 240 this spring, but admitted he “felt a little slower.” Still, he and Spond were basically considered co-starters at the position, with neither being able to get significant separation from the other, similar to the Dan Fox/Carlo Calabrese tandem at Will.
The Dog position might be the most confounding one on defense because of its myriad roles. He has to be fast enough to sometimes cover a slot receiver or running back out of the backfield, agile enough to re-route the receiver while dropping into coverage, yet strong enough to set the edge against the run while taking on the blocks of tight ends and even offensive tackles. It’s part corner, part linebacker and even part defensive end.
It was not an easy transition for Shembo last season, which is why the “Star” position also was created. Against option or spread teams, someone such as safety Jamoris Slaughter downshifts to the Dog slot to provide more speed along the flank. Against more conventional offenses such as Michigan State, Boston College or USC, the Dog’s strength and speed has to be more utilized. Knowing all the different assignments, and then being able to execute them while not overanalyzing, is the trick. Councell believes he has been turning the corner for the first time this August.
“Especially during the beginning, I’d get the play call, they line up and I try to figure out what I’ve got to do — and the ball is snapped,” Councell said. “Whereas now I get the play call, I know what I’ve got to do. Now I can start reading the formation, do all the pre-snap stuff, so when the ball is snapped I know exactly.”
Other than Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, Councell said all the schools in SEC country recruited him as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme. Part of the attraction to Notre Dame was it played an alignment similar to the one he had in high school. Although he sometimes lined up at middle linebacker, Councell had more experience on the outside.
“I’ve still got my speed. That wasn’t so much of a transition,” Councell said. “… I think I need to put on a little more weight to feel comfortable … I want to put on a little more weight so I can play the run a little better.”
After making such a quick ascent in the Irish lineup, the past year for Councell might be best summarized as “Hurry Up … and Weight.”
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