After a week on a roller coaster, Manti Te’o is back on steady ground.
Notre Dame’s star linebacker acknowledged Wednesday that he was hurt by comments coach Brian Kelly made last week about players he inherited from Charlie Weis. But it’s no longer an issue, Te’o said, pointing to Saturday’s rout as proof of his and Notre Dame’s resilience.
“Everything is back to normal,” Te’o, a Punahou alum, said in his first public comments since last week’s dust-up. “I think we demonstrated that no matter what happens, nothing can break apart a family.”
Despite another year of monster numbers — Te’o leads the Irish with 82 tackles, 4.5 sacks and 11 tackles for losses — this has been a somewhat tumultuous season for the junior. An ankle injury last month limited his practice time, which in turn affected his timing and fundamentals during games. He was discouraged by his performance in a loss to USC, the team he grew up rooting for. He tried to become a more vocal leader, only to feel he was losing himself in the din.
Then came the Kelly comments.
Kelly drew a line between players he recruited and those who played for Weis, saying he needed to “retrain” the veterans. Some of the Irish veterans took it as a slight with several, including Te’o, expressing their unhappiness on Twitter.
“I’m going to be honest, I was hurt,” Te’o said. “But like everybody said, this is a family, and we deal with it as a family.”
Kelly apologized to the team during a meeting last Friday, and the entire episode may actually have served to unburden Te’o. Before the Navy game, the low-key Te’o approached defensive coordinator Bob Diaco and said he was no longer going to try and be something he’s not.
“I’m not that much of a yeller. I’m not that much of a rah-rah kind of guy. I was never that type of player,” Te’o said. “I said, ‘Coach, I hope you don’t mind, but I’m just going to be pretty quiet. I’m going to be humble and I’m not going to say anything that much; if I need to say something, I’m going to say it. But I’m not going to yell and I’m not going to try to get everybody pumped up.’ And it worked out well, because our captain, our leader, Harrison (Smith), said the things he needed to say before the games and got everybody going and got me going and really helped me to focus even more.”
With Te’o leading the way, the Irish completely dismantled Navy. The Midshipmen were held to a season-low 229 yards of offense.
Te’o was relentless in his pressure of quarterback Trey Miller, and finished with a game-high 13 tackles and half a sack.
“We just could not block that guy. He just played a phenomenal game,” said Navy coach Ken Niumatalolo, a Radford and University of Hawaii alum. “We tried a lot of different blocking schemes, and we could not get him blocked.”
Te’o was named one of the 16 semifinalists Wednesday for the Chuck Bednarik Award, given annually to the nation’s best defensive player.
But his focus, his only focus, is on winning these last four games, particularly the final home game Nov. 19.
“My mind is on this team,” Te’o said. “My mind is on Harrison, (the other seniors) and winning. That’s what I owe them. I owe them my best effort, my best play.”