From an early September tilt against Michigan State through finishing second in the Heisman Trophy, no college football player had a more magic season than Manti Teo. Media and fans alike fell for the story of a former five star recruit resurrecting the Notre Dame program through the grief of losing his grandmother and girlfriend. Athletes like Lance Armstrong and Alex Rodriguez may have fallen harder from grace, but no athlete became a national punch line faster than Manti Teo once the Lennay Kekua tale became tabloid fodder.
The biggest myth is that Manti Teo was an overall top ten NFL prospect. While an excellent player, he was not considered a franchise changing defensive presence at the next level. Te’o rang up big plays in big moments on national TV because the play of his defensive line. He is a solid, classic middle linebacker, but not the fastest guy, nor most athletic.
Studs like nose tackle Louis Nix III allowed Te’o the freedom to range from sideline to sideline making tackles. Against NFL caliber offensive lines Stanford and Oklahoma, Te’o was generally untouched by offensive linemen, free to shoot gaps and meet ballcarriers unimpeded.
On the night of January 7 in Miami, before we had ever heard of Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, the magic carpet ride ended. Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones did to Notre Dame what no team had done all year. The Alabama offensive line pushed around the vaunted Irish defense, controlling the line of scrimmage. Te’o was in backpedal mode or forced to shed lineman for the first time all season. When he did have a crack at Eddie Lacy or T.J. Yeldon, Te’o whiffed.
Once the catfishing story broke, Te’o became a laughingstock. Any rational analysis of his play or draft prospects went out the window. It was replaced by Page Six type stories and an ill advised appearance with Katie Couric.
The tabloid nonsense is a sidebar, a distraction, the only thing that matters is Teo’s on field performance and how he handles himself in his new locker room. He will have to handle getting his kiki popo’s busted unmercifully, but if he plays well, he will be welcomed with open arms.
As we work our way through the coverage, keep your eyes on the ballcarrier’s hips, don’t get distracted by the media generated distractions. Every time a talking head mentions character issues, remember Lawrence Phillips and Pacman Jones. For better or for worse, the most important thing, often the only thing, is performance.
Manti Te’o is probably looking forward to the combine, being drafted and returning to a football field more than any player in America. There he can return to doing what he does best, playing football. After all the lunacy, he remains the best true middle linebacker in the draft.
Jarvis Jones is graded as the top linebacker in the draft, but he is an outside linebacker. His Georgia teammate Alec Ogletree is also a prospective first round pick, but at 232 pounds is an outside linebacker in the NFL. These two players are considered the draft competition for Te’o.
Before Te’o and the Irish were manhandled to the tune of 529 total yards and 265 rushing yards in the BCS Championship Game, Georgia played Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. Yardage for Alabama vs. Georgia: 512 total yards, 350 yards rushing. A Georgia defense led by Jones and Ogletree was pushed around by Alabama just as badly as the Irish were in Miami.
As the most visible player on the most popular college team in the country, Manti Te’o got too much of his team’s credit as they went 12-0. When they lost, and he became a national punch line, he took too much of the blame. The truth, as usual, lies somewhere in the middle.
And in the middle, as a linebacker, is how Te’o will ultimately be judged.