Te'o Victory Stanford

Ten players, ten reasons: Manti Te’o

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The final entry in a series on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game. Others include Zeke Motta, Danny Spond, TJ Jones, Prince Shembo, Theo Riddick, Kapron Lewis-Moore,  Tommy Rees, Mike Golic Jr. and Stephon Tuitt.

MIAMI — It’s a stretch to think that Manti Te’o — Notre Dame’s returning All-American at middle linebacker — is someone that could ever fly under the radar. Yet as we sit here in Miami, waiting for Notre Dame to play for the national championship, it’s impossible to quantify what Te’o has done for this football team.

But it’s even more difficult to define Te’o’s mark on the university as a whole. After some long, difficult years for the thousands that flock to South Bend every autumn and the millions that keep tabs on the program from afar, it’s finally fun to be a Notre Dame fan again. And that transformation was largely because of Te’o’s transcendent senior season, where he carried a team on his back, through tremendous adversity, and on the way went from a great Notre Dame player to an Irish legend.

“Time will test this, but I think when we look back 10 years from now, he’ll be at the very top of that list,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told the New York Times back in October. “He’ll be with Montana and Huarte and Brown, Hornung.

“Not only was he great, not only was he a member of a very good team, he had that once-in-a-lifetime intersection of who a person is, and who the institution he represents is. The match is so perfect it feels preordained.”

Te’o the man is a story of its own. But from a football perspective, it’s difficult not to have our memory clouded by the accolades and awards earned by Te’o for his fantastic senior season. It makes it hard to remember that while Te’o was a great player, he developed his craft tremendously between his junior and senior seasons. He refined his game on the field, and improved probably more than any other player on the roster. Not bad for a guy already playing at an All-American level.

While an ankle injury slowed Te’o down as a junior, he still made an incredible 128 tackles, including 13.5 for loss as he became a semifinalist for the Bednarik, Butkus and Lombardi awards, trophies he took home this season. And while bringing down ball carriers was never a problem for Te’o, he had a few weaknesses: A propensity to miss some open field tackles, and a difficulty forcing turnovers. To be an elite player, you need to make game-changing plays. And through three seasons, Te’o had a statistical anomaly in his game that couldn’t be overlooked: He hadn’t taken a football away from the opponent.

All of that is what makes his 2012 season so incredible. Always a great downhill player, Te’o was not much better than average as a cover linebacker heading into his senior season. Through a commitment to get leaner and faster, Te’o played remarkably in space, and became a turnover forcing machine. With Notre Dame playing a lot of two-deep coverage, Te’o found himself roaming the middle of the field, like a ball-hawking center fielder that played dangerously shallow. Te’o’s seven interceptions were only bested by Phillip Thomas of Fresno State’s eight. Of the national leaders, only one other linebacker is in the top 30.

While Te’o’s tackle numbers are down this season, his productivity tackling is up. Notre Dame coaches charted only two missed tackles for Te’o, a number Te’o surpassed in 2010’s season opener, when Brian Kelly and Bob Diaco first got their hands on No. 5.

Te’o’s development as a player can’t be overlooked. His legacy — strictly on the playing field — has gone from a great player of his era, on par with Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate, or Justin Tuck, to the defining player of the post-Holtz era. And his footprint on the program will pay dividends for years to come.

Having your best player be your best leader and example-setter changed the Notre Dame program. After two decades of inconsistency and frustration, too often seniors on mediocre teams became disenfranchised — frustrated over their role on the team, their tenure as a player, or their experience on whole. Veteran skeptics have the chance to poison the youth of a team, and that carried over during an era of difficult transitions, coaching missteps and losing seasons. Te’o helped change all that.

Tonight will play a large role in defining Manti Te’o’s legacy. While he always will have the hearts of Notre Dame fans, a victory could push him into the rare realm of a collegiate superstar. Notre Dame’s own version of Tim Tebow, only with a promising professional career on the horizon. An impressive performance by the Irish defense and a game-changing play or two from Te’o could push his name into the conversation for heralded awards like Sportsman of the Year. That’s what happens when a transcendent player and a blue-chip brand unite.

With the season finale just hours away, Te’o’s Notre Dame journey will be complete tonight. Win or lose, he’s carved his place into the lore of the school. And in doing so, he leaves the football program in a much better place than he found it.

 

Smith, Martin, Russell and Prosise all drafted Friday night

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - SEPTEMBER 13: William Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Nick Martin #72 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrate a touchdown during the game against the Purdue Boilermakers at Lucas Oil Stadium on September 13, 2014 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith, Nick Martin, KeiVarae Russell and C.J. Prosise were all selected on Friday, with four Irish teammates taken on the second night of the NFL Draft. As mentioned, Smith came off the board at pick 34, with the Cowboys gambling on the injured knee of the Butkus Award winner. Nick Martin was selected at pick 50, joining former teammate Will Fuller in Houston.

The third round saw Russell and Prosise come off the board, with Kansas City jumping on the confident cornerback and the Seahawks taking Notre Dame’s breakout running back. It capped off a huge night for the Irish with Sheldon Day, one of the more productive football players in college football, still on the board for teams to pick.

Here’s a smattering of instant reactions from the immediate aftermath.

 

 

Jaylon Smith goes to Dallas with 34th pick

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07:  Jaylon Smith #9 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish celebrates by wearing the hat of team mascot, Lucky The Leprechaun, following their 42-30 win against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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Jaylon Smith’s nightmare is over.

After watching his football life thrown into chaos with a career-altering knee injury, Smith came off the board after just two picks in the second round, selected by the Dallas Cowboys with the 34th pick. His selection ended the most challenging months of Smith’s young life, and come after cashing in a significant tax-free, loss-of-value insurance policy that’ll end up being just shy of a million dollars.

No, it’s not top-five money like Smith could’ve expected if he didn’t get hurt. But Smith isn’t expected to play in 2016.

And while there was a pre-draft fascination that focused on the doom and gloom more than the time-consuming recovery, it’s worth pointing out that Dallas’ medical evaluation comes from the source—literally. After all, it was the Cowboys team doctor, Dr. Dan Cooper, who performed the surgery to repair Smith’s knee.

Smith joins Ezekiel Elliott with the Cowboys, arguably the two best position players in the draft. While he might not be available in 2016, Smith will be under the supervision of the Cowboys’ medical staff, paid a seven-figure salary to get healthy with the hopes that he’ll be back to his All-American self sooner than later, especially as the nerve in his knee returns to full functionality.

Will Fuller brings his game-changing skills to the Texans offense

PITTSBURGH, PA - NOVEMBER 07: Will Fuller #7 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish catches a pass before running into the endzone for a touchdown in the second quarter in front of Avonte Maddox #14 of the Pittsburgh Panthers during the game at Heinz Field on November 7, 2015 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
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In all the weeks and months leading up to the NFL Draft, one key tidbit linking Will Fuller to the Houston Texans never seemed to come up. The relationship between Brian Kelly and Bill O’Brien.

The two coaches share a high school alma mater, a friendship that made the due diligence on Notre Dame’s prolific playmaker easy. And it was clear that after all their research, Houston was aggressive in their pursuit of Fuller, trading up to make Notre Dame’s All-American the second receiver off the board, triggered a run at the position.

“He was a guy that we felt strongly about,” Texans general manager Rick Smith told the team’s official website. “We didn’t want to take a chance on not getting him. We were aggressive. We went and made the move.”

That move made Fuller’s decision to leave Notre Dame after three seasons a good one. While it’ll require the Irish to rebuild at a position where Fuller served as one of college football’s best home run hitters, it gives Houston a vertical threat that can extend the top of a defense for a Texans offense that was serious about finding some solutions for a team already in the playoff mix.

Yes, Fuller has work to do. Completing the easy catch is one big area. But for all the pre-draft talk about his limitations, Brian Kelly took on some of the criticism head-on when talking with the Texans’ media reporter.

“Some people have compared him to Teddy Ginn, that’s not fair. He can catch the ball vertically like nobody I’ve coached in 25 years,” Kelly said (a sentiment some hack also laid out). Teddy Ginn is a very good player, but this is a different kind of player. If you throw the ball deep, he’s going to catch the football.”

Fuller is never going to be the biggest receiver on the field. But while most of the banter on his game focused on the negative or his deep ball skills, expect Fuller to find a role not just running deep but unleashed in the screen game as well. After the Texans spent huge on quarterback Brock Osweiler and have invested in fellow Philadelphia native and 2015 third-round pick Jaelen Strong, Fuller wasn’t selected for the future but rather expected to be a day-one piece of the puzzle.

“This will change the speed on offense immediately,” Kelly said. “It was not ‘Hey, let’s wait a couple of years’. It was ‘Let’s go get this right now’ and I think Will will do that for them.”

Hiestand key to Ronnie Stanley’s ascent

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 28:  Ronnie Stanley of Notre Dame holds up a jersey with NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell after being picked #6 overall by the Baltimore Ravens during the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft at the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University on April 28, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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With Ronnie Stanley ending Notre Dame’s top-ten draft drought (seriously, we are running out of things to complain about), the Irish left tackle became Baltimore’s answer for a cornerstone along their offensive line. And as Ozzie Newsome, John Harbaugh and the rest of the Ravens well-respected staff did their due diligence, credit was heaped onto offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“One of my very best friends in coaching is Harry Hiestand,” Harbaugh said. “I talked to Harry a long time…all about Ronnie and he couldn’t speak highly enough about his character, to his intelligence, to his toughness. So you have people you trust in the profession and that goes a long way.”

That opinion of Hiestand is hardly specific to Harbaugh. It’s actually one of the many reasons Brian Kelly hired Hiestand when the Irish and Ed Warinner parted ways. Here’s Notre Dame’s head coach from his initial press release introducing Hiestand as his new line coach.

“When I was searching to fill this position, I asked some of the most respected offensive line coaches in football whom they would recommend,” Kelly said. “And Harry’s name was routinely mentioned as one of the best. His history of developing NFL-caliber offensive linemen speaks for itself, and I know our linemen will learn a lot from him.”

In an era where developing offensive lineman—not just at the college level but for play in the professional ranks—what Hiestand is doing is pretty special. Zack Martin certainly stands above the rest already, a Pro Bowl and All-Pro performer just two years after being a first round draft pick. Chris Watt was selected in the third round by the San Diego Chargers, and expect Nick Martin off the board by the time the evening is over.

 

For as surprising as Hiestand’s effectiveness is on the recruiting trail, maybe it shouldn’t be after you hear the raves that come from those that appreciate his work. That’s especially important as NFL coaches like Pete Carroll bemoan the lack of fundamentals some offensive linemen possess as they prepare for life in the professional ranks.

Here, CoachingSearch.com’s Chris Vannini pulled an interesting snippet from the Super Bowl winning head coach, with the Seahawks taking the drastic approach of converting defensive lineman at the NFL level because they think they’re better suited for the physicality.

“The style of play is different,” Carroll said. “There will be guys that we’re looking at that have never been in a (three-point) stance before. They’ve always been in a two-point stance. There are transitions that have to take place. In the last couple years, we’ve seen pretty strong adjustments by college offensive coordinators to adjust how guys are coming off the ball. They’re not as aggressive and physical-oriented as we like them to be.

“It is different. There is a problem. I looked at a couple guys this week, and I couldn’t find a running play where a guy came off the ball and had to knock a guy off the football. There wasn’t even a play in the game. It’s hard to evaluate what a guy’s gonna be like. We learn to, but it’s not he same as it’s been.”

The good news for Irish fans, especially after having to replace back-to-back first-round left tackles, is that there’s more talent coming through the pipeline. Mike McGlinchey’s move to the left side is already taking root. Left guard Quenton Nelson has earned raves from Kelly. Projected starting right tackle Alex Bars sounds not that far off, either.

In Stanley, the Irish found a talented high school athlete and molded him into a first-round pick. They did so even as he battled injuries that made it hard to dedicate time in the weight room, and bounced him around the offensive line from the right side to the left to find him playing time. Yes, he was a four-star recruit. But as we saw last night, star-rating takes a very large backseat to development.

With Stanley joining rarified air—he and Will Fuller make 66 first-round selections in program history—the Las Vegas native goes up on the wall as an aspiration for present and future Notre Dame lineman.

Just as importantly, he’s another tip of the cap to Hiestand.

 

For more reaction to the NFL Draft, give a listen to the latest episode of Blown Coverage, my podcast with John Walters.