Sunday, April 25, 2010

Irish’s Manti Te'o Making Great Strides on Defense

Crunching linebacker assuming leadership role for Notre Dame in 2nd season

On a tersely cool Saturday morning, Manti Te'o absently lifted one knee after another, warm-ups for the warm-ups.

His gaze wandered and then went to Notre Dame teammate Theo Riddick. More specifically: the red beanie on Riddick's gold helmet. Technically the cap serves as a stop sign, ensuring no one will hit Riddick as he recovers from shoulder surgery. It meant something else to Te'o.

"You look like a ninja turtle," he said.

The prized sophomore-to-be linebacker then smiled slyly. The goofiness is ever-present. So is the earnestness, as evidenced by the tattoo on his left arm that honors his family and culture. So is the ability, as evidenced by Te'o obliterating a ball-=carrier on one practice snap last weekend.

Notre Dame may not have all questions answered by its spring game Saturday, but the coalescing of Manti Te'o's many parts into a formidable whole won't be an issue much longer.

"In his own mind and our coaches' and myself, (he's) living up to some of the expectations that everybody had coming in, as one of the premier defensive high school players in the country," Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

"He can be a great player. He has a chance. And he's showing some signs of that — his recognition, his leadership. It's exciting to watch him grow. He's really growing quickly in a very short period of time."

True, it was just late March when Kelly flatly said Te'o wasn't very good as a freshman. And early in spring, Te'o looked understandably hesitant relaying calls in a new defense.

And after the big practice hit last weekend, Te'o got smoked by tight end Kyle Rudolph for a touchdown catch. It isn't an awakening worth a hallelujah chorus just yet. But it's a start.

"Last year? I was just not confident," Te'o said. "One of the things this year that I wanted to improve on was my confidence, just trusting my instincts. Most of the time, I second-guess my instincts, and that's what gets me into trouble. I just have to tell my legs to move when my instincts say move."

Still, Te'o ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles in 2009 despite not starting until October and, as Kelly said, "guessing" all year.

So the raw material was there. The next stage was taking charge of the Irish defense, a role that requires equal parts comprehension and personality.

"He's energizing, he is a positive person, he's a character with character," defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. "He can absorb the information in the room and come out to the practice field and put it into action. And with all that said, he still has a long way to go."

How long? It may be impossible to tell, as no one is willing to set a bar in this case as Te'o continues to advance quickly exponentially.

"I don't think you can put a ceiling on any athlete, because I think it's up to them," Te'o said. "Like my dad always says, shoot for the stars. There's no ceiling. Just every day come out and do the best you can. What you put in is what you get out."

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