Monday, April 12, 2010

The Sky's The Limit on Te'o Island

The dream of becoming an engineer, whenever life after football pushes itself on Manti Te'o, dissolved as quickly and as decisively as the Notre Dame linebacker's newest passion appeared.

“He hasn't declared a major yet,” said Te'o's father, Brian, “but when he came home at Christmas, he was all excited about going into sports psychology.”

Which may just come in extra handy this spring.

The sophomore-to-be from Laie, Hawaii, supplemented his classwork by jumping outside the required homework box this winter.

He absorbed former Notre Dame coaching icon Lou Holtz's autobiography, “Wins, Losses and Lessons” as well as Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice's offering, “Go Long! My Journey Beyond the Game and the Fame.” But none of that entirely prepared him for the sharp public jabs from first-year head coach Brian Kelly.

“The fact that there's a new staff - we anticipated that could happen way back when Manti was going through the recruiting process,” Brian Te'o said. “We knew if things didn't work out for the team last year, there would be a transition. And even then, Notre Dame was the place he wanted to be at.

“Now that it's here, it's like a rite of passage.”


Manti Te'o's initial splashdown from the highest-rated defensive prospect to land at Notre Dame since Holtz reluctantly walked away in 1996 was as statistically spectacular as it was aesthetically inconsistent.

His 63 tackles for the 6-6 Irish in the last year of the Charlie Weis Era represents the third-highest total ever by a Notre Dame freshman, topped only by eventual All-Americans Bob Golic (82 in 1975) and Ross Browner (68. 1973).

Fifty-seven of those 63 tackles came in ND's final seven games, after Te'o became a full-time starter in game 6 against Washington.

But when he looks back at the film, he sees more growing pains than growth. Sometimes the most jaw-dropping plays were when the 6-foot-2, 250-pounder simply outran his mistakes.

“I see a lot of hesitating,” Manti Te'o said. “I see a young man who showed his youth and wasn't used to college.”

Kelly took it more than a few steps further. Point blank, he said Te'o “wasn't very good.”

“When coach Kelly made that comment, I had to sit back and really think to myself, ‘You know that's exactly how I felt,' ” said Brian Te'o, also an assistant coach at Te'o's old high school, Punahou, in Honolulu.

“There were moments when Manti had a spectacular play and there were moments when I said, ‘What are you doing?' Now, I don't know if I would have made that comment in a press conference, but Manti knows how much he has to improve, and it was a good thing for him to hear it.”

Presumed No. 1 quarterback Dayne Crist and top wide receiver Michael Floyd hear it too. Crist, in fact, has heard his fundamentals called “as sloppy as they come,” by Kelly. Floyd was pressed to lose weight or risk sinking on the depth chart.

It's probably not an accident that the three “examples” Kelly has decided to rake in front of the media just happen to be the three players on the Irish roster this spring who came out of high school with the highest recruiting ratings.

“I am buying in,” Manti Te'o assured. “And what I'm buying into is intensity through repetition, always going hard every single play and that it will all pay off.”

Kelly has taken notice.

“(Te'o) was a true freshman,” Kelly amended recently. “He was the best guy they had. He was 240, 250. They wanted to be a little bit stronger (when the old regime decided to throw him in the lineup), but he was guessing. And that's to be expected. (Now), he's learning how to play the game and how he fits in this defense.

“And he's clearly understanding where he is in this defense. We're not an attacking 4-3 defense. This is a no-crease 3-4 defense. He understands that, so his progression is pretty good.”

He was certainly an upgrade, at least from a speed standpoint, when he usurped senior Toryan Smith from the lineup last fall. Smith ran the 40-yard dash in 5.03 seconds at ND's Pro Day audition for NFL scouts last month - slightly slower than ND's newest offensive tackle recruit, Plant City (Fla.) High School junior Jordan Prestwood (4.98) and the football equivalent of light years slower than Te'o (4.55).

New defensive coordinator Bob Diaco succinctly summed up where he believes all of this is headed.

“He has no ceiling,” Diaco said of Te'o. “The sky really is the limit.”

But there are hidden variables that swirl around Manti Te'o that make arriving there more challenging.

It starts with the distance. At 4,341 miles from South Bend to his parents' modest house on the North Shore of Oahu, Te'o is all of four miles closer to home than he is to Barcelona, Spain.

“When other kids go home for spring break or a long weekend, we can't,” said Irish receiver Roby Toma, Te'o's best friend since childhood. “They invite us to come along to be with their families, and that's very cool and generous, but it's not the same. I don't think the homesickness ever goes away, but you learn to tolerate it.”

“It's tough on this end too,” Brian Te'o said. “But we understand that this is a new chapter in Manti's life, an important chapter. And it really wouldn't have been any easier if he were in California or Utah or Washington. Once you cross that ocean, financially and logistically, it's difficult to come home.”

Also in the mix is Te'o's spiritual obligations, which include a two-year Mormon mission - perhaps when football is finished now that he decided at Christmas time to put it off at least a year.

There's the conflicting pull to the NFL, where stepping into that dream would also mean a needed financial windfall for his family.

“I'm not sure I would use the word ‘needed',” former Irish head coach Charlie Weis said. “Those people are happy with whatever they have. They feel blessed. They are the happiest family I have ever been around.”

Add to that the responsibility now of calling the defensive signals, of being tagged as a leader, and perhaps the eventual allure of maybe jumping into the NFL Draft pool early.

Manti Te'o's response to all of this was to insist on staying in South Bend over spring break to work out with Crist when his parents unveiled the surprise that they had put enough money away for a plane ticket.

Even before that, he went back to his roots, his Samoan roots. A tattoo now graces his left arm from shoulder to elbow, with intricate symbols of Samoan tradition, culture and values. He got it about the time he decided to dive into the Kelly regime instead of embarking on a two-year hiatus for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“When his mother and I watch him on the videos on the Internet doing interviews, we understand how much expectation, how much obligation that he must be feeling,” Brian Te'o said. “And we know he wants to take care of his family. He wants to feed our dreams.

“But I texted him the other day. I said, ‘Enjoy practice, enjoy playing college football, because it's going to be over before you know it. The only thing I asked of him beyond that was to promise me he would finish school and not go in an early NFL Draft.

“Our hopes for Manti is that he can focus on the here and now, just worry about being a college sophomore. It's time for his own dreams to come into focus. It's time for him to discover what they are and then to chase them down.”

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