Manti Te'o has endured his share of lows since the 2013 BCS National Championship Game. But a disappointing ending shouldn't overshadow a brilliant body of work. And Te'o's collegiate highlights affirm his first-round projection in the 2013 NFL draft.
Notre Dame's shooting star was sitting atop the athletic world last New Year's Eve. However, his newfound stardom took the form of a screaming meteor before the last piece of confetti fell.
Te'o's Jan. 7 performance versus the Alabama Crimson Tide made for a forgettable finale. One week later, the now-notorious girlfriend hoax clenched the media spotlight and questioned his mental makeup. The following month, his uninspiring 4.82 40 time (per CBSSports.com) flung another bandolier to his critics.
In less than four months, Te'o regressed from Heisman hopeful to eccentric enigma.
But on the field, one thing is crystal clear: Te'o's vigorous leadership spawns a ruthless linebacker with a take-no-prisoners mentality.
Over his four-year collegiate career, Manti Te'o made a personal highlight reel from his annual haunting of Stanford.
And 2012 was no exception.
Trying to pave a comeback trail, No. 5 blows past a delayed block by the right guard. Te'o maintains his balance and closes in on the ball-carrier from behind.
He ultimately corrals highly touted running back Stepfan Taylor, holding him to a one-yard gain.
Notre Dame's 2012 road to redemption began with a 40-point blowout versus Navy.
On 4th-and-1, Te'o swiftly bolts through the "B" gap as the whiffing right tackle attempts to cut block him.
He penetrates the backfield as a slow-developing read-option unfolds, and Navy's quarterback is grounded before he has a chance to turn upfield.
Turnover on downs.
In Te'o's opening statement of his 2010 meeting with Stanford, he ensured that no yard would come without a price.
And unfortunately for Stanford's running backs, they served as the examples.
After the snap, the center bull-rushes the inside linebacker as he slides laterally.
Te'o sheds the block, sprints toward the rusher and books a one-way flight to the sideline for him.
Te'o's critics constantly yammer about the linebacker's pedestrian closing speed. And while he won't run through his cleats anytime soon, he packs enough speed to finish the job.
As Utah's quarterback takes the snap, Te'o initially drops back into zone coverage. But the passer doesn't see any viable options downfield and rolls left to evade the oncoming rush.
The quarterback scrambles toward an open-field illusion, and the seemingly empty acre quickly plays host to a golden-tipped homing missile.
Te'o locks on to the scrambler and steamrolls him seven yards into the backfield.
In 2009, Manti Te'o made his collegiate debut versus a potent Nevada Wolf Pack offense—an offense led by dual-threat phenom Colin Kaepernick.
But Nevada was stifled by an oppressive Notre Dame defense.
Kaepernick continually struggled, completing just 12 of 23 passes for 149 yards and two interceptions. His scrambling was equally ineffective, as Nevada's playmaker was held to 39 yards on 10 rushing attempts (via Sports-Reference).
While Te'o's on-field opportunities were limited, it was apparent that Notre Dame's notorious sign rubbed off on him.
The young linebacker began lighting opponents up in the fourth quarter.
At one point, Nevada was faced with a 3rd-and-short scenario, and the offense lined up in a twin-trips formation. As Kaepernick drops back, Nevada sets up a double screen: The left half of the formation—including the center—blocks for the slot receiver while the right half plows ahead of the halfback.
But Te'o diagnosed the play and roared toward the intended wideout, punctuating the drive with a thud of regret.
Last season, Landry Jones and the high-octane Oklahoma Sooners aerial attack were bound to exploit Notre Dame's defense.
But Te'o consistently stonewalled the opposition, time and again.
In the above play, Jones baits the Notre Dame defense into tipping its hand and anticipates that No. 5 will blitz. But the protection plan goes awry due to miscommunication up front, and Te'o ultimately rumbles through the "B" gap unabated.
Jones closes his eyes, embraces his fate and peels himself off of the grass.
The sideline is your friend: Exhibit A.
Running backs are often grilled by critics for strolling out of bounds to avoid collisions. But the following play shows why bailing out became common practice.
The Stanford offense—after eluding early penetration—successfully executes an off-tackle rush: The tight ends seal the edge, the fullback plunges into the secondary and Stanford's rusher rounds the corner with room to spare.
But after tightroping the sideline, he attempts to squeeze back inside and turn upfield.
The ball-carrier's field of vision betrays him, and he fails to realize that Manti Te'o is barreling toward him like a 248-pound locomotive.
The ensuing impact would make the Incredible Hulk cringe.
The most memorable highlight of Manti Te'o's collegiate career may be his late-game interception at Oklahoma.
With four minutes, 34 seconds left to play, Landry Jones attempts to connect with his receiver on a five-yard hitch route. The pass sails high, and the receiver—with linebacker Dan Fox draped across his back—can't adjust quickly enough.
Te'o hustles over to offer support, only to find himself in a race with gravity as the tipped pass continues to fall.
He dives and positions his hands underneath the football at the last millisecond, then manages to keep possession of the ball while rolling forward.
Te'o's clutch interception all but sealed the victory for Notre Dame and renewed the team's national championship aspirations.
The Western Michigan Broncos don't stir any emotions within the average fan.
But that doesn't factor into why this clip holds its own among the crowd. Regardless of the name on the jersey or the margin on the scoreboard, Manti Te'o's "de-cleating" hit is pure aesthetic eye candy.
After the snap, fellow linebacker Carlo Calabrese swings into the backfield and attempts to tackle the running back, but comes away empty-handed.
However, just as the tailback spins out of the attempt, he's tattooed by a Te'o clothesline that sends his 211 pounds airborne.
Without Manti Te'o's goal-line denial of Stepfan Taylor, Notre Dame's perfect regular season might have detoured on the road to the BCS National Championship Game.
A back-and-forth offensive struggle eventually gave way to overtime. Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees lobbed a touchdown to TJ Jones and helped hand the defense a seven-point cushion.
But Stanford's ground game continued to hoard yardage, and the offense looked prime to punch it in as it faced 1st-and-goal on Notre Dame's 4-yard line.
Taylor's next carry then advanced his team one yard shy of the end zone.
In order to secure the victory, Te'o's defense would be forced to stuff Stanford on three consecutive plays without surrendering a single yard. And they did just that.
Taylor dove headfirst into a brick wall on three consecutive handoffs, including a critical third-down denial by a launching Manti Te'o.
Twitter: Follow @BrettGering