Manti Te'o has had a roller coaster last few months, to say the least.
He started off as one of the most popular figures in college football because of his playmaking ability and significant contribution to the resurgence of the Fighting Irish.
Then he became even more popular but for the wrong reasons. He was involved in a hoax that portrayed him as a liar and being "catfished" (via deadspin.com).
The incident involving a fake girlfriend, who was said to have passed away, has been a significant stain on Te'o's college career. So much that NFL teams have had to investigate it thoroughly during the draft process and temporarily deem it more important than his game film.
That said, the game film from Te'o's collegiate career is still the beginning and end of the evaluation. And the truth is, he's a good but not great player. That's not necessarily a knock on the linebacker, as he was never a great prospect despite being hyped as one by the media.
What the games show is a prospect whose best trait is defending the run. He can be somewhat described as a traditional "thumper" at the inside linebacker position. The games also show, however, that he is a bit reckless when coming downhill to defend the run, and despite his size, he sometimes has issues shedding blocks.
Take for instance Te'o's run defense against Stanford. At times, he was excellent getting into the backfield because of his instincts and understanding of the game. However, he missed the ball-carrier multiple times in the backfield, which cost his team.
Here's one example. Te'o is lined up at his usual inside linebacker spot in Notre Dame's 3-4 defense, and when the ball snaps, he is quick to get downhill. He's the first of the two inside linebackers to move downhill, which shows how quick he is to read and react.
Te'o then aggressively attacks the line of scrimmage, coming downhill in a hurry to put a stop to running back Stepfan Taylor's forward movement.
However, when he gets there, he drops his head to make the tackle. That's a significant mistake on his part because his vision is not focused on the running back. As a result, he misses the tackle when Taylor spins in the opposite direction.
This is a mistake that Te'o can correct in the pros, but it's something that he has a strong tendency of doing. He also tends to come into the backfield without control, thus taking himself out of plays with poor angles.
As noted earlier, Te'o isn't always the cleanest when it comes to stacking and shedding blocks. He has good size at 6'2" and 241 pounds, but he isn't always able to disengage from blockers. One of his most infamous performances was in the BCS National Championship Game against Alabama, when he and Notre Dame were thrashed 42-14.
In the game against Alabama, he was particularly poor. It almost seemed as if he was singled out as a target by the Alabama offensive linemen prior to the game. He was slow flowing down the line of scrimmage and couldn't get off the blocks of the interior offensive linemen.
On one play, he was swallowed up by center Barrett Jones when he attacked the line of scrimmage. Once again aligned at inside linebacker, Te'o was lined up deeper than the linebacker next to him and was slower reading the run this time.
When he approached the line of scrimmage, he was met by Jones, who was two yards into the second level. Jones blocked Te'o, placing his hands underneath the arms of the linebacker.
Te'o then struggled to shake off the block and was sent wide of the ball-carrier, who made a cut to the backside and into the second level.
Combined with the character questions, there is reason to be concerned about the Notre Dame linebacker as a prospect.
If he struggles to play well and doesn't fit into the locker room, it would be a wasted pick. However, I believe Te'o is still a good player who is unlikely to be a bust. I share NFL Films' Greg Cosell's opinion that ultimately talent is what matters most (via the Los Angeles Times).
Talent usually wins out over temperament in the NFL. That's always the case in sports. Unless a guy is totally disruptive, teams want him if he's good. Look at a guy like Terrell Owens. He stuck around even though he was disruptive because he was so good on Sundays.
Although Te'o does sometimes struggle to shed blocks and is reckless in pursuit, these issues can be corrected through the teaching of fundamentals.
When it comes to pass coverage, some have questioned whether Te'o has adequate athleticism to do the job. I believe he does because he's instinctive and reads the game well. In zone coverage, he does a good job of passing off tight ends to the safeties and picking up receivers who run shallow crossing routes.
Against Michigan State last season, Te'o showed his understanding of shallow crossing routes by passing off the first crosser and picking up the second who came from the backside.
Typically, inside linebackers get caught up in covering the first crosser, leaving the second to get an easy catch and plenty of running room. On the play at the 3:34 mark in the video to the right, Te'o showed his knowledge and range.
He still needs to improve in coverage when he's not facing the ball, but that's something he should develop in the pros.
All in all, the Notre Dame linebacker has first-round talent despite his issues. He could be an option for several teams, including the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens.
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