Jan 7, 2013, 12:23 PM EDT
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.
Aug 4, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
We kicked off our list with five candidates for a breakout season. Our next installment seems to be doing one better: All five players have already started football games (or in one case, a game), now the goal is to become dominant performers.
Aug 3, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
Irish fans have been waiting to see Max Redfield emerge as the star safety Notre Dame has desperately needed since Harrison Smith went to the NFL. But entering his third season, Redfield is still a work in progress.
Aug 3, 2015, 1:00 PM EDT
Two seasons in and we have yet to see much from linebacker Doug Randolph. But after a shoulder injury slowed him at the beginning of his career and various injuries kept him from contributing more in 2014, perhaps a position change is what gets the rising junior back on track.
Aug 3, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
As we begin our rankings, we find a cross-section of players that represent just about every type of Brian Kelly recruit. There are blue-chippers. There are “RKGs.” And there are position switches and developmental projects.
Aug 3, 2015, 1:06 AM EDT
As a true freshman, James Onwualu found his way into the starting lineup, an unheralded freshman finding playing time by doing the little things right. As a sophomore, Onwualu made the rather unheard of transition from wideout to linebacker, and once again found himself starting football games.
Aug 2, 2015, 8:05 PM EDT
As we begin to reveal the top 25 players on Notre Dame’s roster, our raw numbers point to an intriguing amount of depth on this football team. As you consider the returning talent on this football team—only Ben Koyack, Everett Golson, Matt Hegarty and Cody Riggs depart from the Music City Bowl’s starting lineup—the depth chart and high end personnel is there, and that proof seems to be in our numbers.
Aug 2, 2015, 1:58 PM EDT
Spring hero? Tough to find a bigger one than C.J. Prosise. With numbers low in the backfield this spring, Notre Dame’s emerging slot receiver transitioned to running back—and immediately became an X factor in 2015.
Aug 1, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
For most of Romeo Okwara’s college career, the defender’s young age was mentioned when discussing the intriguing athlete’s upside. With ideal length, more than adequate athleticism and a skill set that fit in both Bob Diaco and Brian VanGorder’s defense, it was always a wait-and-see proposition for the North Carolina native, who simply needed a few years in Paul Longo’s weight room to catch up to his age.
Jul 31, 2015, 4:39 PM EDT
With the start of training camp right around the corner, it’s time for our annual tradition of ranking the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster.
Jul 31, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
With Kyle Brindza gone, sophomore Tyler Newsome takes over the punting duties. And outside of seeing a few not-really live kicks in the Blue-Gold game, what that means remains to be seen.
Jul 31, 2015, 11:48 AM EDT
We wrap up our offseason look at Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents with the Stanford Cardinal. The postseason could come down to a late-season showdown in Palo Alto with David Shaw’s team trying to rebound from a five-loss season.
Jul 31, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
After a redshirt season, Quenton Nelson is ready to play. Jumping to the head of the line at a crowded (and talented) position, Nelson is taking his five-star pedigree and bringing it to the starting lineup.
Jul 30, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
This spring, you’d have probably won some money if you had Sam Mustipher emerging as the No. 2 center. But with Matt Hegarty’s departure and some failed experiments before him, it was Mustipher who was backing up Nick Martin and snapping the ball to Everett Golson in a spring game played on Notre Dame’s practice field.
Jul 30, 2015, 1:47 PM EDT
Notre Dame opens the season ranked No. 11 in the preseason USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. The Irish, who finished last season 8-5, return the majority of their starting lineup, providing some context for the bullish expectations. Only Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team is ranked higher among teams that finished with five losses in 2014.
Jul 30, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Last year, we saw what a talented freshman linebacker in over his head looked like. His name was Nyles Morgan, and the blue-chip recruit personified the second-half defensive collapse that flushed the Irish season down the drain. Want the good part? Stick around, as Irish A-to-Z continues.
Jul 30, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
When Brian Kelly plucked offensive lineman John Montelus from his hometown of Everett, Massachusetts, the Irish looked to be adding another mauler to the interior of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. And after two seasons of reshaping his body and learning the ropes, Montelus is in a competitive two-deep, still looking for a role in this offense.
Jul 29, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
It didn’t take long for Notre Dame’s coaching staff to know they wanted to offer Peter Mokwuah. After getting a glimpse of the big-bodied defensive tackle, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly went to Staten Island and left with a key piece to the depth chart.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:11 PM EDT
We are a little more than a week away from the start of the 2015 football season. Notre Dame released their training camp schedule on Wednesday, highlighting the key dates leading up to the season opener against Texas.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Entering his third year in the program, offensive lineman Colin McGovern hasn’t found his way into the lineup. That’s the product of a depth chart filled with other talented options, as well as McGovern dealing with injuries and position switches as he looks to find his niche.
Jul 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
Last preseason, Mike McGlinchey was the odd-man out along the offensive line, losing out on the opportunity to be the team’s starting right tackle. Entering 2015, he’s one of the key X factors that’ll determine whether or not Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is one of the best in the country.