SOUTH BEND, Ind. » Manti Te’o can clear up two issues immediately. His nose, broken last year in a game against Army, is fine. And his knee, which he had cleaned up with arthroscopic surgery in the offseason, is completely healed.
The Punahou School graduate reports that facial update with a laugh. But there’s a serious question looming for Notre Dame’s hard-hitting linebacker and the Irish fans who watched him make 133 tackles last season — the most by an Irish defender since 1983.
Could this third season in South Bend be his final one if the NFL beckons?
“I don’t really think about it. The task at hand is what is really important to me,” Te’o said of the upcoming season that kicks off Sept. 3 against South Florida.
“I’m just preparing myself to play the best brand of football that I have ever played and whatever comes up and whatever opportunities present themselves then I will sit down with my family and with my coaches and we will talk about it,” he said. “Of course, we have talked about the future and the possibilities of it happening, but right now all that matters to me is this football team.”
With Te’o a force at inside linebacker, the Irish’s defense got better as the season progressed a year ago, especially during a four-game winning streak that allowed them to finish 8-5, including a Sun Bowl victory over Miami.
Te’o leads a group of eight returning defensive starters, including safety Harrison Smith, ends Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore and outside linebacker Darius Fleming.
During that streak last season, the Irish allowed an average of only 9.8 points and gave up just one touchdown during a stretch of 15 quarters. They yielded only 91.8 yards rushing over those four games, wins over Utah, Army, Southern Cal and the Hurricanes.
Te’o was right in the middle of it all.
A highly regarded prep recruit from Punahou, Te’o came to Notre Dame after choosing South Bend over Southern California.
After an adjustment period as a freshman, he made an immediate impact when he started 10 games and had 63 tackles.
When the Irish finished 6-6 in what would be coach Charlie Weis’ final campaign, Te’o had another difficult decision — continue with football or go on a church mission. He chose to stay with a new coaching regime led by Brian Kelly. His faith continues to play a huge role in his life and he’s attended a nearby Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
As he sat out this spring to mend his knee, Te’o had a chance to do a lot of watching and that helped him see the defense from a new perspective, learning what other positions do.
“If you know what’s happening around you, you know why you are doing certain things,” Te’o said. “I know why I got to be in a certain position on the field. That’s why I took that whole spring to see what the defensive line does and it just furthered my knowledge of the game.”
Defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said Te’o’s ability to concentrate helps, even when he’s not on the field.
“If you are really focused and your mind’s eye is on a particular event, whether you are watching tape and know what to look at or are at practice, it can really move your game along,” Diaco said of Te’o’s ability to understand the game and the Irish’s 3-4 defense.
“He’s one of the older players. And he has the skills and the ability to have a single-minded focus in those moments.”
Te’o had 21 tackles in a game against Stanford last season and he had six stops against USC despite the broken nose. But there also were times when he missed some stops.
Notre Dame lost a tough game against a free-wheeling Tulsa offense and was pretty much run over by Navy’s option offense.
“I always critique myself. I can always work on bettering my game, coming back stronger and faster,” Te’o said.
“We went through the whole year and had our ups and downs. We played the Tulsa game and the Navy game, those lows. And we also played the Miami game and also played the USC game and ended the season the way we did. We’ve been in those low times and those high times. We know what it takes to be on top and what it takes to be the best.”
If the Irish — ranked 16th in the preseason poll — are to reach their goal of making a BCS bowl, the defense will have to play a pivotal role. And that centers on Te’o.
“We know what he is capable of doing. I think we’ve spent more time with him fundamentally, more than we have, ‘Hey get in there and show us what you can do,’” Kelly said. “He still has the same leadership qualities.”
And the coach isn’t giving much thought, either, to what might happen should Te’o’s season make him a top pro prospect after the season.
“Manti didn’t come here to go to the NFL. He would have gone on a Mormon mission,” Kelly said. “He came here to be at Notre Dame.”