Tony Krausz |
SOUTH BEND – Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o is comfortable in his surroundings.
And that includes more than being nestled in the middle of the new Irish 3-4 scheme. The Hawaiian is also more at ease with his teammates.
“I know all the guys,” Te’o said. “Last year as a freshman, I was new and didn’t really know everybody. And I’m talking about knowing people in not just knowing their names but knowing them as a person.
“I know all of my teammates as people, and that’s what makes me the most comfortable.”
The other players are also comfortable looking at Te’o as more than a tackling machine.
Te’o solidified his place in the defense in the fifth game last season with 10-tackle performance in a 37-30 overtime win over Washington. He finished the season with 63 tackles – the third-highest total ever for a Notre Dame freshman – 5 1/2 tackles for loss and one sack.
Entering this season, more will be expected of the 6-foot-2, 245-pound sophomore
“I consider him to be one of the leaders on the team, even though he’s a sophomore,” linebacker Darius Fleming said. “He carries himself with a good demeanor and is very mature about the game. He knows a lot.”
And whether he knew it or not, Te’o’s decision to postpone his Mormon mission trip for at least a year in December meant a lot to his teammates.
“He’s here for good,” linebacker Brian Smith said. “He decided to hold off on his mission to be here, and he wants to be here. It meant a lot because that was a player, a starter, that we didn’t lose. It definitely meant a lot for the team to get him back.”
This year, the defense will try to lose the perception of being a weak link. Last season, the Irish offense was ranked in the top 10 in most categories, but the defense fell behind as Notre Dame tried to implement a 4-3 scheme.
The Irish were 86th nationally in total defense last season, giving up 397.8 yards per game. Notre Dame was 76th in passing defense, giving up 227.5 yards, and 89th against the run, giving up 170.3 yards.
“I believe fundamentally that you can’t be a championship football team unless you play good defense,” coach Brian Kelly said. “I think what I was excited about more than anything else is that we have some players on that side of the ball with the scheme that we’re implementing that fit what their strengths are.”
And the players are strengthening their knowledge of the system that they were recruited to play in before Te’o’s class arrived in 2009.
“The more you go through things, the more comfortable you get with the system,” Te’o said. “We are learning where we are supposed to be, and where we are not supposed to be. We are learning where our teammates are supposed to be, and where they are not supposed to be. It’s great to see that we are all in the spots where we need to be.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said he doesn’t believe playing with a chip on its shoulder will get the defense where it needs to be. Diaco said that mentality has proven effective at times but is fleeting.
“We want to build this thing on a solid, concrete foundation,” Diaco said. “But with that being said, I can’t imagine that they do not have chip on their shoulder based on the negativity that has surrounded the defense.”