Manti Te’o is a great football player. He will be an even better professional linebacker.
Te'o looked out of place at times. Other times, tackling was a major issue.
But Te’o was the year-long cover boy of college football.
Geno Smith had his moment in the sun. Collin Klein got a ton of props. And Johnny “Football” Manziel came on late to steal the Heisman Trophy.
It was Te’o, though, who was Mr. Consistent from Week 1 to the end of the regular season. Te’o took home seven major awards—the Nagurski, the Bednarik Award, the Butkus Award, the Ronnie Lott Trophy, the Lombardi, Walter Camp Player of the Year and most notably the Maxwell Award (the handsome yet immature brother of the Heisman Trophy). And he was also voted a consensus All-American.
Most importantly, he led Notre Dame to its first undefeated regular season since 1988, when the Lou Holtz-coached team won the National Championship after defeating West Virginia in the Fiesta Bowl. Te’o came up short of that in his senior season.
Make no mistake about it, though, he will go down as one of the greatest players to have played at Notre Dame. He is already a legend in the amazing lore that is Notre Dame football.
His 113 tackles, 1.5 sacks and seven interceptions separated made him stand out on what was college football’s version of the Baltimore Ravens—a defense which tends to give up a lot of yards but causes great resistance in the red zone.
In the regular season, Notre Dame gave up just nine offensive touchdowns. Nine.
Give Louis Nix III credit. Credit the secondary. Credit defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. But most of all credit Te’o—the emotional leader of the Irish defense.
In fact, go ahead and compare him to Ray Lewis, at least in that sense. Few players in college football truly transcend the game of football the way that Te’o did this season.
Te’o, of course, lost his grandmother and girlfriend in the same fateful week in mid-September just prior the annual Michigan State contest. Te’o played that weekend. The whole team was inspired to win the game for him.
Te’o did his part—collecting 12 tackles and breaking up two passes. His play in the dominating win over the Spartans led the defense to begin a streak of four consecutive games without allowing an offensive touchdown.
If you don’t think football is emotional or based on the psychological, just look at Te’o. He was an improving player in his first three seasons (his total tackles were actually better in his junior season). In his senior season he made the leap from top college prospect and nice college player to the best player in college football and a likely first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft.
It wasn’t as if Te’o suddenly had an eruption of talent come upon him. After all, he was the prized recruit of Charlie Weis’ entire Notre Dame tenure. It was because of his talent.
In 2012, Te’o made the leap because something bigger was at play. He was a man on a mission.
Te’o is one of the classiest student-athletes ever. Like Ray Lewis, he is a tremendous leader who has been through a ton.
Te’o is not the physically imposing, in-your-face rah-rah type in quite the same mold of Lewis. Te’o would definitely struggle in a 3-4 defense—in which Lewis excelled.
But put Te’o in a Tampa-Two style defense and he will be an All-Pro who leads his team to a Super Bowl in much the same way Lewis did in 2000-01.
With the Tampa Two in mind, the perfect landing spot would seem to be Chicago, where the new coach will certainly maintain the current defensive philosophy left over from Lovie Smith’s tenure as head coach.
Te’o would be the perfect youngster to replace the aging veteran Brian Urlacher. Should it happen, the Bears would continue to be middle linebacker ‘U—err…franchise, in the same way Green Bay can brag about its seamless transition from quarterback to quarterback and the Steelers from head coach to head coach.
The point is this: Te’o will excel at the next level because he is supremely talented. But more importantly, he will excel because he is an emotional leader who plays the game with passion.
Whatever team is lucky enough to draft him is going to get the most underappreciated player in this year’s draft class.