Te’o key to Ir­ish’s un­beaten sea­son

ND’S ‘quar­ter­back of de­fense’ war­rants valid con­sid­er­a­tion.

Austin American-Statesman - - C SPORTS - By­tom Coyne

SOUTH BEND, IND. — If Manti Te’o’s ca­reer at Notre Dame has seemed like some­thing straight out of a Hol­ly­wood script, per­haps it’s fit­ting the line­backer is cast as an un­der­dog in the fi­nal two scenes of his col­le­giate ca­reer.

First, he will try to be­come the first de­fenseonly player to win the Heis­man Tro­phy, go­ing up against a cou­ple of quar­ter­backs Satur­day night in Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel and Kansas State’s 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.

Te’o still finds it all a bit hard to be­lieve.

“It’s some­thing that I never - I don’t think any­body could an­tic­i­pate or ex­pect. It’s al­ways a goal to be the best, to be the best you can be, and I just - I didn’t think that it would be to this mag­ni­tude,” he said. “I’m just very grate­ful to be in this sit­u­a­tion and to rep­re­sent my team.”

Te’o 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, Te’o had two in­ter­cep­tions, lead­ing to a touch­down and a field goal, and had two more quar­ter­back hur­ries that led to in­ter­cep­tions in a 136 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 Te’o’s re­sume from the per­spec­tive of some Heis­man Tro­phy vot­ers might be that he’s 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 Ge­or­gia’s Tony Tay­lor had that many in 2006. Te’o also has 103 tack­les.

His coaches and team­mates, though, say the num­bers don’t be­gin to tell the story of Te’o. 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 isn’t 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 he’s never un­der­stood why de­fen­sive play­ers don’t win the award and be­lieves Te’o is de­serv­ing.

“They’re noted for their de­fense and he’s the quar­ter­back of the de­fense,” Stoops said. “He’s been the guy all year. He’s been their guy and I don’t think there’s any ques­tion he’s a guy that should have a great op­por­tu­nity to win it.”

Notre Dame has seven Heis­man win­ners. Te’o hopes to make it eight.

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