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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Te'o has future on line

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — This summer, Manti Te'o dissolved into restorative bliss on Oahu's shore, unwound by the easy cadence of hometown life. The Notre Dame linebacker existed in Laie-man's terms: He woke, did chores, hit the beach, hit the couch, took his sisters to movies.

"You don't want to go out with your friends?" his father, Brian, would ask.


"Ah, maybe tomorrow night," Te'o would reply.

"I just wanted to stay in the country, go to the beach, eat at local restaurants — just chill," Te'o told the Tribune outside the locker room last week.

"I knew that the next time I would be home is December — if I'm home, I mean. So I'm going to spend (time) with the people I want to spend it with, the people that mean the most to me."

As his future began to impose upon his present, it was a three-week recharge for the most consequential months of his life. If the Irish are Bowl Championship Series-worthy in 2011, Te'o likely has played exceptionally well. If the junior does that, it is possible he won't return home as a Notre Dame football player.

Already, Brian Te'o said, letters and calls from agents and visitors on behalf of agents have found their way to Laie, Hawaii. Already, the Te'os consulted with Notre Dame compliance officials to manage that. Already, Te'o is a top 20 prospect for the 2012 NFL draft according to one analyst and his parents considered buying an insurance policy for this fall.

Already this summer — simply because the reality is unavoidable — the family discussed Teo's gilded future and what he must navigate to ready himself for it.

"We want him to enjoy where he's at now," his father said, "but keep in mind his future is out there and that he needs to be cognizant of what he needs to prepare for."

This is no guarantee Te'o plays his final game for Notre Dame this winter. That depends on Te'o, in many ways.

"That's a big if — and the 'if' is, if I play well," Te'o said. "My whole focus is on this season … on my team. There's going to be a time for me to think about that. Right now, it's not the time. … Hopefully, I perform well and I have that option, I become eligible to make that decision. Until then, I'm going to play my brand of football."

That produced 133 tackles in 2010 and a spate of 2011 preview magazine cover shoots. It's instructive the face of Notre Dame is a squared-off 255-pound daisy cutter who still can refine his game to limit overpursuit and missed tackles, for one.

This summer, as every year, Te'o and his father met to set goals. Brian Te'o invoked a parallel to high school: You have respect, now it's time for people to fear you.

Manti Te'o laughed — "OK, Dad, here we go, Chapter 3," he said — but it's a synopsis for how Te'o can galvanize the Irish.

"Part of that is hitting people, coming with a lot of force to just try to inflict my will on our opponents," Te'o said. "When you walk on the field and the offense looks at your defense, you want them to know: This is a bad defense."

Those lofty aspirations will lead to challenging decisions, though Irish coach Brian Kelly tamped down that notion Saturday, encouraging observers to "look at the inside linebackers and where they've been drafted over the past five years. They're not No. 1 draft picks normally."

"Manti didn't come here to go to the NFL," Kelly added. "He came here to be at Notre Dame."

For how long? No one doubts Te'o's affection for the school, and the new rookie salary cap tames the allure of big-dollar contracts. But ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr., rated Te'o the No. 20 overall prospect on his initial 2012 draft "Big Board."

"That (first-round) potential is there," DraftCoundown.com's Scott Wright said. "He has great size, he plays fast. He closes in a hurry, he gets in the backfield, he makes plays sideline to sideline. There's a lot to like about him."

Te'o wants to play professionally. He wants to give back. He wants to build a house for his family. But first the foundation must set fully at Notre Dame.

He can't know if every experience is his last this season. He sees no choice but to treat it that way.

"It's not because it might be my last season, but just the fact I'm more than halfway done with my college career," Te'o said. "That has been in my head. I don't want one day to go by where I don't exert everything I have."

bchamilton@tribune.comTwitter @ChiTribHamilton

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