Te’o leads Irish defense, key to perfect season

  • Posted: Friday, December 7, 2012 12:12 a.m.
AP file photo
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo acknowledges the applause of fans as he leaves his final home game. Teo is now one of the Heisman finalists.
AP file photo Notre Dame linebacker Manti Teo acknowledges the applause of fans as he leaves his final home game. Teo is now one of the Heisman finalists.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. If Manti Teos career at Notre Dame has seemed like something straight out of a Hollywood script, perhaps it is fitting the linebacker is cast as a underdog in the final two scenes of his collegiate career.

First, he will try to become the first defense-only player to win the Heisman Trophy, going up against a couple of quarterbacks Saturday night in Texas A&Ms Johnny Manziel and Kansas States Collin Klein. Next month, he will lead the top-ranked Fighting Irish against defending champion Alabama in the BCS championship game as Notre Dame tries to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start a season unranked and win it all.

Teo still finds it all a bit hard to believe.

Its something that I never I dont think anybody could anticipate or expect. Its always a goal to be the best, to be the best you can be, and I just I didnt think that it would be to this magnitude, he said. Im just very grateful to be in this situation and to represent my team.

Teo has represented the Irish amazingly well, showing courage in playing his best game of the season just days after both his girlfriend and grandmother died a few hours apart. He never missed practice and made a season-high 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 victory over then-No. 10 Michigan State.

A week later, on the day his girlfriend was buried, Teo had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, and had two more quarterback hurries that led to interceptions in a 13-6 win over Michigan as many Irish fans wore leis to show their support for the star who grew up in Hawaii.

The biggest item missing from Teos resume from the perspective of some Heisman Trophy voters might be that hes never passed or run for a touchdown, just about a prerequisite for winners. He has plenty of other impressive numbers, though. His seven interceptions are the most ever by a Notre Dame linebacker and the most by any linebacker since Georgias Tony Taylor had that many in 2006. Teo also has 103 tackles.

His coaches and teammates, though, say the numbers dont begin to tell the story of Teo.

He has been the face and heartbeat of not only the Notre Dame defense but the entire team that kept surprising naysayers, from winning at Oklahoma to those stirring goal-line stands against Stanford and Southern California.

If a guy like Manti isnt going to win the Heisman they should just make it an offensive award and just give it to the offensive player every year and cut to the chase, coach Brian Kelly said. He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week.

The only defensive player to win the trophy was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. But Woodson also played some wide receiver and returned punts.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said hes never understood why defensive players dont win the award and believes Teo is deserving.

Theyre noted for their defense and hes the quarterback of the defense, Stoops said. Hes been the guy all year. Hes been their guy and I dont think theres any question hes a guy that should have a great opportunity to win it.

Teo showed his leadership skills before the Oklahoma game. Quarterback Everett Golson had struggled in a big game against Michigan and Teo asked Kelly if he could talk to Golson before the game. Kelly didnt ask Teo what he wanted to say.

Because its really not important for me what Manti is talking about with the quarterback because I know what hes going to say is all positive. But Everett got up with a big smile on his face. I think it set him at ease, Kelly said. I think he impacts everybody on our football team.

With seven Heisman winners, Notre Dame has had some unconventional winners. Paul Hornung, who played quarterback, halfback and safety, is the only Heisman winner to play for a losing team. The Irish were 2-8 when he won in 1956. Quarterback John Huarte won in 1964 while leading the Irish to a 9-1 record a season after failing to letter for a 2-7 squad.

The most compelling part of Teos story, though, is his journey. How after three mostly mediocre seasons for the team, he helped turn this season into one Irish fans will talk about for years.

The turning point may have actually come last season. After a 31-17 loss to USC last October, Kelly was asked if getting players to play like he wants at Notre Dame was a harder sell than at other schools. Kelly replied: You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. Weve had one class of recruiting, kids that Ive had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but its a process. It cant happen overnight. Theyre getting there. Theyre making good progress.

That upset some players, with Teo tweeting: Playin for my bros and thats it!!!!

Kelly apologized for his remarks.

I think anytime in a family there are going to be some disagreements, Kelly said. Maybe the way I did it wasnt the appropriate way. But I think it was pretty clear that we understood each other in terms of what my expectations were. I just wish I handled it better.

The Irish came together after that, with Teo the catalyst as the Irish won four of their next five.

The fact that a Mormon from Hawaii who hates cold weather wound up at a Roman Catholic university in a northern Indiana city that averages more than 70 inches of snow a year seems unlikely, especially considering he was such a big fan of archrival USC growing up that he was in tears when the Irish nearly upset the Trojans in 2005.

Teo wore shorts and flip-flops for his campus visit during a blustery November weekend when some in the crowd threw snowballs at Irish players during an embarrassing 24-23 loss to Syracuse, the first eight-loss team to ever beat the Irish.

Teo has said the game didnt play a role in his decision. What did, though, was his English teacher showing the movie Dead Poets Society on the eve of signing day in February 2009. Teo had already decided he was going to USC, but a character in the film struggling with a difficult life choice prompted Teo to rethink his choice. He prayed, and something told him to go to Notre Dame.

He prayed again following his freshman season about whether to return or go on a Mormon mission. He did the same thing again a year ago when he was deciding whether to enter the NFL draft or return for his senior season.

He believes what has happened to him this season shows the power or prayer.

I think for anybody whos questioning if God lives, he lives, and Im an example of that. For those who dont know if he answers your prayers, he does, because he answered mine. If he didnt answer prayers, I wouldnt be here. I wouldnt have come here. I definitely wouldnt have come back for my senior year. And I wouldnt have done a lot of things that Ive done, he said.

Teo hopes hell leave a legacy, which he surely will if the Irish beat Alabama next month and win their first national championship since 1988. But the main thing he wants is to be remembered as someone who gave his best.

If you dont do things to be the best at it, why are you doing it? So Im just trying to be the best, he said. Once I leave here, I hope that the impact Ive made not only on the football field but in peoples lives will forever be remembered.

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