Manti Te’o grew up rooting for Southern California, and when it was time for him to choose a college, he was ready to join the Trojans.
Late in the process, he decided it was best for him to go to Notre Dame.
Choosing South Bend over L.A. turned out to be a good move for both him and the Irish.
Now as one of the nation’s best linebackers, Te’o will lead Notre Dame (4-2) against USC (5-1) on Saturday night in a meeting of two teams who hope to break into the Top 25 with a victory. Te’o said the excitement of playing against the school he almost attended and one he always watched has pretty much disappeared.
“My first two years, I’d say, ‘OK, this is USC, I almost went there.’ I grew up a USC fan. I used to have those kind of emotions mixing in with all the anxiety and excitement,” Te’o said. “But going into this year, I don’t have that feeling anymore. I’m happy to play another game.”
Te’o, a Mormon, said his faith guided him in making his choice of college.
“I was going to go to USC. I prayed about it,” Te’o said Wednesday. “I was directed here. I think that was the only thing that could persuade me to come here. I was all sold on USC. I grew up a USC fan, you know what I mean? But I prayed about it and everything pointed this way.”
After his freshman season, when he emerged as a starter for 10 games under coach Charlie Weis, Te’o decided to stick with football instead of going on a Mormon mission. The last two seasons, he has developed in coach Brian Kelly’s 3-4 defense as an impact player whose talents could lead him to the NFL as soon as next year.
“Manti didn’t come here to go to the NFL. He would have gone on a Mormon mission,” Kelly said earlier this season. “He came here to be at Notre Dame.”
Te’o has 133 tackles last season, the most by an Irish defensive player since Tony Furjanic had 147 in 1983. And he’s picked his game up this season: Te’o has 59 total tackles and leads the Irish with four sacks and 8 1/2 tackles for losses. That’s twice his number of sacks from his first two seasons combined.
“His game is up a level. I’d say that he’s continued to improve,” defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said. “Some of those tackles that were in the backfield or opportunities that he missed, he’s not missing them. He’s picked his game up fundamentally. He worked very hard on it and continues to work very hard on it.”
Te’o credits his coaches for giving him more leeway to pressure the passer, and he feels more comfortable doing so. He has also watched more film.
“I watch the same play over and over again so when I see it on the field, my body already knows what to do from what I watched,” he said.
Te’o said he still knows some of the USC players — not as many as he once did coming out of Punahou High School, whose most famous graduate is President Barack Obama.
But Te’o said he is “cool” with those he does know, including quarterback Matt Barkley.
Barkley was injured and didn’t play a year ago when the Irish pulled out a 20-16 victory at the Coliseum to end an eight-game losing streak against the Trojans.
Te’o played in that game with a broken nose, but will be full speed Saturday in the first night game at Notre Dame Stadium since 1990. He had down time during the Irish’s bye week to rest a sore ankle he hurt in a lopsided victory over Air Force — Notre Dame’s fourth straight victory.
Notes: Notre Dame is slated to wear a new version of its gold helmet. The new helmet color looks shinier with a brighter sparkle than the previously worn helmets. Notre Dame tradition has kept a golden flake mixed into the paint. … Kelly wouldn’t commit to what jerseys the Irish would wear Saturday, but perhaps they’ll go green against USC. .. A Notre Dame spokesman said the team will wear a small green shamrock sticker with a black X in the middle on the back of their helmets in remembrance of former student manager Xavier Murphy. Murphy was a fifth-year student and intern with the football team when he passed Oct. 11 at the age of 22 from complications with leukemia.
AP Freelancer writer Tyler James in South Bend, Ind., contributed to this report.