Jan 7, 2013, 12:23 PM EST
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.
Mar 4, 2015, 2:25 PM EST
As the focus begins to turn to spring football, it appears one very big roster move is taking place along the offensive line. Matt Fortuna of ESPN reports that starting center Matt Hegarty will be leaving Notre Dame and playing his fifth year elsewhere.
Mar 3, 2015, 11:49 AM EST
With Notre Dame just one season into Mike Denbrock’s tenure as offensive coordinator, Brian Kelly didn’t look like he was in the market for a new offensive coordinator. But in Mike Sanford, Kelly (and Denbrock) found a coach worth making room for.
Mar 3, 2015, 11:32 AM EST
In hiring defensive backs coach Todd Lyght, Brian Kelly decided to bring back to the program one of the most talented players of the Lou Holtz era. While his resume may be short as a coach, one listen to Lyght reveals a man whose DNA is football, with coaching taking root after a world-class career.
Mar 3, 2015, 10:49 AM EST
Notre Dame’s all-time leading rusher is now in charge of coaching the position. Autry Denson’s return to South Bend comes at the perfect time, with Brian Kelly looking to find the right coach and personality to replace Tony Alford on the coaching staff.
Mar 3, 2015, 10:20 AM EST
Notre Dame’s new defensive line coach Keith Gilmore was introduced yesterday, a reunion for Gilmore with former boss Brian Kelly and former college teammates Brian VanGorder and Paul Longo.
Mar 2, 2015, 10:52 AM EST
After weeks of speculation, Brian Kelly has announced his coaching staff for the 2015 season. The result is four new assistants, a few new assignments and the homecoming of a handful of former Irish stars.
Mar 1, 2015, 7:47 PM EST
Before Brian Kelly introduces us to his new coaching staff tomorrow, let’s finish the mailbag. More here on what to expect from Mike Sanford, “committing” to the run, and stopping the option.
Feb 28, 2015, 2:48 PM EST
Well crew, I’ve gotta say… I’m a little underwhelmed by the mailbag question. And in the 150+ comments of people screaming at each other about mostly stupid stuff, I think I speak for everybody when I say:
Feb 27, 2015, 12:40 PM EST
Former Notre Dame president Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C., died Thursday night on campus. Father Ted was 97. He said his final mass on Thursday, the day he passed away.
Feb 26, 2015, 3:24 PM EST
Gone are Cody Riggs and Austin Collinsworth. Returning is a safety position that’s struggled, another transfer, a young cornerback on the rise, and (hopefully) an exiled potential star.
Welcome to the Notre Dame secondary. New coaching, same scheme, different players, and one of 2015’s great unknowns.
Feb 25, 2015, 2:34 PM EST
As we get a few extra weeks to prep for spring practice, let’s open the mailbag.
Feb 24, 2015, 6:56 PM EST
A position that looked like a huge question mark entering the 2014 season ended the year with an embarrassment of riches. After watching Will Fuller emerge with a record-setting sophomore season, the loss of DaVaris Daniels and departure of TJ Jones didn’t do anything to slow the Irish passing game down.
Feb 24, 2015, 1:34 PM EST
None of Notre Dame’s coaching changes are official yet. But more arrows point to North Carolina defensive line coach Keith Gilmore joining the Irish staff in the same role.
Feb 23, 2015, 12:43 AM EST
There might not be a deeper unit on the roster than the offensive line. After a lack of depth made it nearly impossible to practice at full speed heading into the 2012 BCS title game, Notre Dame enters the 2015 season with a two-deep most teams would pay for.
Feb 20, 2015, 10:48 AM EST
Whether it’s the Siberian Express rolling through most of the country (sorry, guys) or the grand reshuffling taking place on Brian Kelly’s coaching staff, Notre Dame announced a delay in the kickoff of spring practice.
Feb 19, 2015, 11:44 AM EST
After an incredibly impressive run at the position, Notre Dame enters spring practice with nothing but question marks at tight end. After Brian Kelly watched Kyle Rudolph, Tyler Eifert, Troy Niklas and now Ben Koyack churn through his program, he’ll spend spring trying to figure out what exactly he has at the position.
Feb 18, 2015, 11:47 AM EST
On Tuesday, a flurry of reports had Brian Kelly focusing in on the final pieces of his reshuffled coaching staff. They include two likely additions, one transition, and a position shift.
Feb 18, 2015, 11:18 AM EST
A few days after safety Avery Sebastian announced his intentions, Notre Dame made the commitment and graduate transfer of the former Cal safety official. Sebastian will enroll in graduate school and join the team in June.
Feb 17, 2015, 4:12 PM EST
After missing out on a running back in the 2014 recruiting cycle, a once crowded depth chart now only features Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. Two backs that once worried about having to find snaps will now have all the work they could ever want, with the majority of spring spent doing everything they can to stay healthy.
Feb 16, 2015, 2:20 PM EST
One of the most impressive statistical seasons in school history was flushed down the toilet when Everett Golson could not stop turning the football over. With fumbles, poor decision-making and some plain bad luck plaguing Golson’s otherwise exceptional season, Brian Kelly chose Malik Zaire to be his starter for the Music City Bowl.