Notre Dame fans knew the day Manti Te'o committed to play for Charlie Weis that he'd be a special player.
The last time an electric Irish player anchored the middle of the defense while roaming the field looking for opponents' heads goes back to Courtney Watson, a converted running back.
The last time a truly special talent played on the Irish defense goes all the way back to Justin Tuck, who currently plays for the New York Giants. Irish fans have yearned for an athlete who could make special plays and recognized him when they met Te'o.
There is no arguing that Te'o is a walking highlight reel or that he's been productive at inside linebacker, but he's destined to increase impact on the field in 2011.
Productivity is often measured in numbers like Te'o's 2010 stats, including 133 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, and 1 sack, but the numbers don't always paint a clear picture.
For example, 133 tackles is nice, but 1 sack is lacking, when Te'o could blitz from the inside and make more sacks. This year, Te'o may lose tackling numbers, but he'll gain stats in other categories, which is what we hope to explain in the top 5 reasons Manti Te'o's productivity will increase.
1. Paul Longo
Paul Longo is highly regarded in college football not only for his ability to develop players' strength and conditioning, but also for his unique and creative approach to that training.
He has a keen eye for his players' current physical abilities and attributes, while knowing where those players' physical attributes should be and how they can achieve those results.
Manti Te'o has the benefit of two offseasons spent working with Longo, who knows that he's got a special player on his hands—one with remarkable combination of speed and strength. Refining Te'o's build while strengthening him within limits can only make the native Hawaiian better as he enters his junior campaign.
Strength coaches often over-build players, slowing them down and making them less productive, but under Longo's tutelage, you'll notice quite the opposite in Te'o.
2. 2nd Year in Diaco's System
While defense may seem easy, being the quarterback of that defense certainly isn't.
Te'o has a higher football IQ than most, but even the best "quarterbacks" struggle at times when entering a new system. It's hesitancy here or misalignment there that force a player to suffer that momentary loss of productivity.
While the Irish attempted to base out of 3-4 in Weis' last years with the program, the defense often found itself attempt to find its identity under a schizophrenic coaching staff. Bob Diaco walked in with a plan and a concrete way to run his defense.
That's not to say he can't walk a linebacker up to transform his 3-4 into a 4-3, but Diaco's defense originates from a singular defensive scheme created by Diaco, a protege of Al Groh. Having a full year to learn Diaco's playbook and terminology, running the defense should be second nature for Te'o by now.
3. Experienced Front Seven
For all the reasons Te'o will be a better player individually, including Paul Longo's training and comfort with Bob Diaco's playbook, the Notre Dame front seven will be much better this season.
Most of the defensive line was forced into action much too early in their careers. They were undersized and inexperienced. Now, they've had time to add bulk—the proper bulk—for their positions.
They're properly positioned, know their reads, and will align properly to maximize their effectiveness on the line. With the ability to draw double teams and be in the proper place at the right time, Te'o will spend less time fighting off blockers and more time finding the ball carrier.
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Additionally, Te'o will not have to cover as many positions, as his teammates in the front seven will be better at holding the point of attack and knowing their assignments.
Finally, being able to concentrate on his position, Te'o can truly maximize his potential in a way he previously couldn't, due to the fact that he was being pulled in multiple directions. Look for more blitzes from Te'o which will ultimately increase his sack total for the year.
4. Aaron Lynch & Stephon Tuitt
Brian Kelly mentioned that he expects both Lynch and Tuitt to play in Notre Dame's first game against South Florida.
One can imply that will be in 3rd and long situations when Kelly can unleash his two hell hounds, but the tandem may play in other situations, as well.
That's yet to be seen.
Both carry the same accolades as Te'o when he enrolled at Notre Dame, and most Irish fans recognize the same special abilities in these two defensive lineman.
With these 5-star athletes pressuring the opponent on the defensive line, Te'o can expect to gain additional tackles as Lynch and Tuitt force their prey from the pocket.
With that pressure, quarterbacks and running backs will worry more about the immediate threat coming off the ends than the threat of Te'o up the middle or down the hash. Te'o may also find more time to spy athletes in the backfield, focusing solely on catching that athlete when he has the ball.
The athleticism of Lynch and Tuitt will be a windfall for Te'o, as he continues to provide highlights for YouTube.
5. NFL Knocking
It's Te'o's junior year, which means he'll be eligible for the NFL next spring.
While it's likely he'll stay in South Bend for another year to increase his strength before entering the Draft, Te'o knows that he has to impress the scouts if he chooses to leave for the NFL, this year, not that he has to do much to impress them.
The difference in being a first round pick and a middle round pick is a lot of money, though, so it's important to put one's best foot forward, especially this close to your dream.
Te'o will certainly look at his numbers from the last two seasons to set higher goals for himself in 2011. Already a focused and intelligent athlete, a super-charged Te'o with even more focus than before will make him a monster in the middle of the field.
Look for more sacks, more tackles for loss, and possibly more interceptions, this year, from Manti Te'o, because he'll enjoy the benefits we've just discussed. Already an All-Star, Te'o's game will take another leap this year, especially in the South Florida game where he'll face a mobile quarterback with a weak offensive line.
It'll be an exciting year for the Irish, but none more exciting than the poster boy of the Notre Dame defense—Manti Te'o.