Thursday, September 30, 2010

Irish Want More From Te'o

The lessons learned have become more abstract, the critiques of his game more nuanced.

That's the aftermath of Manti Te'o's 21-tackle performance last weekend, the fifth-most stops in a game by a Notre Dame player ever.

To call the sophomore a finished product ignores the fact he's at the center of a defense on pace to smash last year's all-time high mark for yardage conceded. But to tag Te'o as anything but a revelation undersells just how good the former five-star recruit has been.

Te'o leads the nation with 54 total tackles. That puts him on pace for 162 stops in a 12-game season and would make him the most productive sophomore in Irish history. He's 20 tackles ahead of runner-up Harrison Smith, a sign that at least Notre Dame won't have a safety leading the team in stops for a third straight year.

But consider Bob Diaco immune to Manti Mania.

"He's playing good," said the Irish defensive coordinator. "He's making mistakes that need to get corrected.

He's got a long way to go. You can see how some of the things that he's doing in the game create a problem ? even with as productive as he was."

Diaco pointed to plays only a coordinator would notice, Te'o taking a misstep at the snap that sends the running back in the direction opposite Notre Dame's play call intended. Ask Te'o about his mistakes and he went small picture, pointing to his facemask penalty in the fourth quarter with the Stanford game out of hand.

Inside the Irish red zone Te'o latched on to running back Stepfan Taylor's grill, dragging him down. After the tackle Te'o looked over at the officials, making the kind of eye contact that guilty parties do.

"I shouldn't have looked at him, because right when I looked at him, he looked at me and he pulled his flag," Te'o said. "I was like, dang it, you got me. So I know now not to look at the ref when I accidentally grab a facemask."

Actually, Brian Kelly wants more facemask grabbing by Te'o, just of Notre Dame's other players. If somebody can bring the Irish defense along for the rise, it's the guy who's supposed to lead the team in tackles anyway. And for Notre Dame's it's a long, long rise considering the Irish rank among college football's dregs in most categories.

Kelly said he'll be pushing Te'o forward as an example of what he wants not just in a linebacker, but in a player. Te'o said he's willing to take on a new role if necessary, which doesn't mean he's exactly jumping at it.

"We always look at the grading of (players) relative to can they influence others around them?" Kelly said. "I think he's starting to get to that point where if his play is as consistent as it is, he then starts to influence others. That's a dynamic place to be."

While Kelly and Diaco insisted Te'o dropping running backs by the dozen is a good thing and not a commentary on Notre Dame's others defenders, balance isn't a bad thing either.

Last year's national leader in tackles was Carmen Messina, who played for 1-11 New Mexico. Of the nation's Top 10 tacklers last season, five played for losing teams. On the flip side, Alabama, Florida and Texas didn't have a single player among the nation's Top 100 tacklers. Cincinnati has two within a defense ranked in college football's top half in just one major category, scoring at No. 44.

Te'o's output is certainly a start, but Notre Dame needs some of its other defensive players to approach their star linebacker's production, even if matching him stop for stop is asking a too much.

"What we're trying to do more than anything else is talk about the difference between playing hard and playing with that will, that tenacity, that attitude of I'm going to just lay it on the line," Kelly said. "I think that's what we're looking for from Manti. That's what he delivered. If that gets modeled by other players, we're just better because of it."

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