Friday, September 16, 2011

Manti Te'o Leads Notre Dame Defense Into Battle

By Paul M. Banks, today at 3:24 pm

Expectations are always high for both Manti Te’o and Notre Dame.

Te’o, an inside linebacker who graduated from the same high school as President Barack Obama, is one of those all-worldly college football recruits that earn the highest ratings possible from every recruiting service imaginable. Both ESPNU and the Sporting News rated him the top defensive player, and 2nd best player, in the nation. His recruiting process was highly publicized, and his final two choices were the ND and USC.

Alas, neither the Fighting Irish nor the Trojans, two of the game’s most storied teams, will contend for a national title this year, or likely even next year. The Irish came into 2011 ranked #16 in the nation, with many experts believing they’d be a BCS contender.

However, two heartbreaking losses to start the season puts them at 0-2 and in an especially precarious position as they take on the #15 Michigan State Spartans on Saturday.

“Whenever you lose that’s tough in itself. Te’o said after the Michigan game, a contest in which the whole nation watched the Irish blow a 24-7 4th quarter lead and lose a very emotional game 35-31.

Te’o is not only the defense’s best player, but also their emotional leader, so there’s a lot of responsibility on him to bring the unit back so the team can respond.

“It’s not whether will we or can we, we have to,” he said.

Although the defense, pass defense especially, did not look good in week two, the unit looked pretty good in week one versus South Florida.

“I mean I think defensively we did okay. There were times where we could have made some more plays, but you know it’s a team , we’re going to win or lose as a team. So we’ve just got to come back in and get better,” Te’o said after the USF loss.

When he was a freshman, the 6-2, 245lb LB posted the third-most tackles ever by an Irish rookie; and ranked fourth on ND with 63 stops in 2009. His 2010 season was even better as he had 133 total tackles (most for an Irish defender since 1983), 9.5 for a loss, a fumble recovery and three pass breakups.

His defensive coordinator Bob Diaco described him thusly:

“He’s definitely in the top cut of maturity. He’s just a mature person with a big heart. Always in service, in service to the student body, his teammates, his coaches, helping out his buddies. So when you factor that with his tangible skill set on the field, that’s really a special blend.”

Given the current depth chart, this is a do-or-die type of season in South Bend. Seven of the eleven starters on defense are seniors. And that doesn’t include Te’o, who could jump early for the NFL Draft, given that many NFL scouts have him projected as a first round pick. On offense, the Irish will graduate every starter but one on the line, and their biggest overall playmaker on the entire team in wide Michael Floyd.

The chance to turn things around starts Saturday, at home versus a #15 Spartans team that’s been victorious in five of their last six visits to Notre Dame Stadium. Te’o remains positive:

“We have to stay together, if we stay together everything will be fine, and we control our own destiny.”

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