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Ten players, ten reasons: Manti Te’o

Jan 7, 2013, 12:23 PM EDT

Te'o Victory Stanford

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.


  1. don74 - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:39 PM

    He is an amazing story. His press conferences reveal composure and insight well beyond his age. I don’t usually look at any athlete as anything other than an athlete. Teo is the complete package and someone to be admired.

    Just saw the story on Coach Eliot working through kidney failure all season. Giving himself dialysis daily while never missing a recruiting visit, practice or game. Getting a transplant from his sister in a few weeks.
    There are so many great stories this year.

    Irish 24, Bama 17.

  2. nudeman - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:43 PM

    Wow, had no idea about that with Elliott. He really doesn’t get enough credit for the work he’s done developing the secondary. He’s been a HUGE staff success.

    On a completely separate subject (because I have too much time on my hands), I just saw an interview with Jessica Lange. God she’s aged beautifully. And no botox or other bullshit. All natural. I would gladly have a couple shots of whiskey with her.

    ND 19
    Bama 16

    • NotreDan - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:46 PM

      I’ll always know her as “Babsy”….

    • runners00 - Jan 7, 2013 at 1:20 PM

      You think they’ll score 16 on us?

      Somewhat more seriously, I think we will be all right tonight. Golson has to protect the football, we have to play soundly on special teams and we have to get to AJ. I think we’ll do all three. Let’s go Irish!

  3. NotreDan - Jan 7, 2013 at 12:49 PM

    I normally don’t do this… BUT

    Head on over the the ESPN ND blog…. Matt Fortuna just posted his prediction, and he ain’t picking the gold helmets. Head on over and say hello.

  4. 4horsemenrideagain - Jan 7, 2013 at 2:21 PM

    “You might say I’m a dreamer…”

    I don’t normally quote Beatles’ songs, but today (tonight) is not a normal one.

    UA: 13

    I’ll be here all week for congratulations on predicting such a convincing, and entirely unexpected (except by me) upset.

  5. irish4006 - Jan 7, 2013 at 3:48 PM

    One thing Manti hasn’t done yet, taking one back to the house. Will it be the day?

    Butterflies, butterflies…

  6. oldestguard - Jan 7, 2013 at 4:04 PM

    Manti’s “mission” is almost complete.

  7. ndirish32 - Jan 7, 2013 at 4:04 PM

    Like a heavyweight fight, I think Bama will be trying to land a knockout blow early on… so a little rope-a-dope from the Irish may be in order, which with the bend-but-don’t-break defense led by #5 could be a recipe for success. My pick is ND 3-0 after 1, then Bama pulls ahead 10-3 at the half. ND scores a TD in the 3rd and Bama kicks another field goal to lead 13-10 after 3 quarters, then ND takes over with about 10 minutes left and cranks up that running game, eating lots of clock in the process… final scores, ND 17, Bama 13.

    • ndirish32 - Jan 7, 2013 at 4:06 PM

      The game ends with Bama on about ND’s 30 throwing a few into the end zone, which the Irish will knock down and maybe pick one off to end the game.

  8. loadofwash - Jan 7, 2013 at 8:48 PM

    He’s just too small to take serious

  9. sinister23 - Jan 7, 2013 at 9:29 PM

    NC+ND/BAMA=ouch…. Lmao

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