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Friday, September 24, 2010

Notre Dame football: Te'o taking ownership of defense

By ERIC HANSEN

SOUTH BEND - The weird cocktail of culture shock, homesickness and an unfriendly learning curve doesn't taste so pungent now.

Not that it ever stopped Manti Te'o from trying to step into the cumbersome expectations that followed him 4,316 miles from Oahu's North Shore.

For the first time, he can actually see it in the distance, a glimpse of what the finished product should look like - through the glare of a coaching change, a scheme change, a position change and the growing pains that, surprisingly, didn't blindside him but certainly poked holes in his confidence.  “We're getting better,” the Notre Dame sophomore middle linebacker asserted of the 102nd-ranked Irish defense as a whole, perhaps properly contradicting what the national defensive statistics say this week. “I think that's a scary thing.”

CBS College Sports recruiting analyst Tom Lemming still maintains Te'o is a linebacker for a generation, the defensive prospect with the most high-end potential to land at Notre Dame since Bob Crable walked the campus three decades ago.

Saturday Te'o clashes with the best quarterback he might face in his collegiate career, Stanford redshirt sophomore Andrew Luck, and an offense that's put up 50 points in four of its past eight outings, dating back to last year.

The Cardinal (3-0 and ranked 16th) just missed that mark against the Irish (1-2) last November, rallying for a 45-38 victory in Palo Alto, Calif., in what turned out to be purged ND coach Charlie Weis' sendoff. Lost was Te'o's 10 tackles in the game, which tied a career-high at the time.

So far this season, he's had nine, 13 and 11, the impact of which has been largely eroded by the final scores of ND's first three games and some memorable whiffs.

“I think he's tackled better, more than anything else, from week one to week three,” ND coach Brian Kelly assessed, “though he had a key miss on the third-down situation, where he had the back in the backfield against Michigan State.

“That's probably a little bit of that young exuberance, where he wants to go for the knockout blow instead of taking the guy down. But he's improved on his tackling. He certainly now can communicate as the captain out there. He's got to get everybody lined up, him and Harrison (Smith). We're putting a lot on him.”

And Te'o wants all of it - and more.

It's not enough anymore to amass the big numbers. He wants the impacting ones. He wants to raise the level of the entire defense. He wants to take ownership of where this Irish defense is headed.

And that's why he's watching Ray Lewis.

Te'o went so far as to subscribe to an all-access package, where he can watch every one of Lewis' NFL games at any time on his dorm-room computer.

“He's a great hitter, a great leader,” said the 6-foot-2, 245-pound Te'o of the 6-1, 250-pound, 35-year-old Baltimore Ravens icon. “Personally for me, I watch the way he moves, the way he reads, the way he sees, the angles he takes.”

For Manti Te'o, the first leadership step is cleaning up your own mess.

Brian Te'o, Manti's father and most influential football mentor, has seen this tape before.

Manti was cast in the role of leader at the Punahou School in Honolulu at a very young age after transferring back there as a high school sophomore, following a year at public school football power Kahuku.

“It's not a challenge he's afraid of,” Brian Te'o said. “He's just got to get past some of the cultural anxieties that might preclude him from feeling like a leader.

“In our culture - as a Samoan or Polynesian, in general - all the youth have grown up to respect people who are older than them, whether it be one or two years, or more. So some of the people he's expected to lead are actually people who mentored him when he first arrived on campus.

“What we've told him is to, ‘Play your game. Let them see your game.' He's got to focus on that piece first, then I think the leadership will come through for him.”

Playing his game entails getting rid of some bad habits. At Punahou, Manti Te'o learned to make up for missed assignments or physical limitations of some of his teammates in helping President Barack Obama's alma mater to its first state title in football, in 2008.

“He knows he doesn't have to do that anymore,” Brian Te'o said, “So I'm hoping he's able to kind of settle himself down and just trust everybody else around him. When he didn't do that in high school, he'd be flying all over the place and, yes, making plays. But he was also out of position a lot. I think we're starting to see him turn the corner on that.”

Kelly committed to Manti Te'o being the face and the voice of the Irish defense long before he saw the significant progress on the field and after he took him down a few notches verbally last spring.

“Well, there's no question he handles himself in (a leadership) capacity, not just on the field but off the field,” Kelly said. “And he's somebody that people will follow. Certainly, as a coach, those are the guys that you want to push out front, and we'll continue to push him out front, because he represents the things that we want him to represent.”

Before Manti shocked the college football world and pushed away USC and BYU on national signing day 2008 to walk down a path way outside his comfort zone, his parents tried to teach him about the traditions he would someday be expected to walk in while at ND.

The standards that never left. The ghosts from history. The angst that comes from too many September fades from the national title picture in recent years.

“It's finally clicking with him,” Brian Te'o said. “It's an important piece in where he's trying to go. It's not something just existing in mythology. It's reality now, and he can change reality.

“I think coach Kelly has done an awesome job in helping each of these players understand exactly where they are. The opportunity is sitting right there for Manti, and all of the rest of them.

“It's time.”

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