San Francisco Chronicle
POSTED: 05:24 p.m. HST, Oct 11, 2012
LAST UPDATED: 06:28 a.m. HST, Oct 12, 2012
Once the ball is snapped, he’s apt to make the tackle before anyone could blurt out his full name: Manti Malietau Louis Te’o.
On a conference call Wednesday, Notre Dame’s All-America linebacker was asked about the fact that only one full-time defender, Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997, has won the Heisman Trophy.
“That’s a tremendous honor whenever a defensive player is recognized,” Te’o said.
Heismanpundit.com, which keeps tabs on this sort of thing, lists the frontrunners, in order, as West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith, Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein, Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Te’o. The Scripps Heisman Poll, the longest-running Heisman poll in the nation, has Te’o at No. 5 this week.
But is it fair that the Heisman voters basically rule out defensive players? “I can’t say much about that,” he said.
He’ll sidestep that question, but he’s quite a bit more direct on the field. His 48 tackles lead the next highest Irish defender by 20. He has three interceptions, two fumble recoveries and two quarterback hurries that led to interceptions.
On Saturday (12:30 p.m. kickoff), he’ll throw his 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame at Stanford, while keeping a close eye on tailback Stepfan Taylor, who’s well on his way to his third straight 1,000-yard season.
“He’s fast. He’s strong,” Te’o said. “He’s a powerful runner who keeps his legs moving, which makes it hard for opponents to bring him down. We played against each other in our sophomore year, and he’s made great strides since then.”
Despite No. 7 Notre Dame’s 5-0 start — a win would give the Irish their best start in a decade — Te’o has played with a heavy heart. His grandmother and his girlfriend died within a few hours of each other on Sept. 11. His girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, succumbed after a long fight against leukemia.
Te’o decided to play the game following their deaths. Football “is a great escape,” he said at the time. He was humbled by a huge outpouring of support on the South Bend, Ind., campus.
He subsequently was on a regional cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline “The Full Manti” and figures to be a high pick in the next NFL draft. He could have been playing in the pros this season but decided to play his senior season.
When studying game film, Stanford coach David Shaw noticed a running play in which, as soon as the guard started to pull, Te’o passed his fellow inside linebacker and beat him to the tackle. “It’s uncanny,” Shaw said. “He’s a special player.”
He said Te’o is like his Cardinal counterpart, Shayne Skov, only 10 pounds heavier. “You get on guys about form tackles and wrapping up,” Shaw said. “When Manti hits people, he doesn’t have a chance to wrap them up half the time. He pops them, and they go down, he’s so physical.”
Notre Dame has three excellent tailbacks — seniors Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood and sophomore George Atkinson III, son of the Oakland Raiders great (Atkinson’s twin, Josh, is a backup cornerback). The Irish have All-American tight end Tyler Eifert and a strong defense. No wonder they’re the only FBS team that has yet to trail in a game this year.
Te’o is their emotional leader. A Mormon from Hawaii, the high-profile prep prospect chose a Catholic school over a host of other schools, including Stanford.
“I enjoyed my trip to Stanford,” he said. “I enjoyed coach (Jim) Harbaugh and (then-linebackers coach) Andy Buh. I have a lot of family on the West Coast.”
He eventually decided Notre Dame was a better fit, but now he’s trying to avoid going 0-4 against the Cardinal in his career. “They play smash-mouth football at its purest,” he said. “It’s going to be fun.”