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If anyone deserves to be in Heisman talk, it’s Te’o

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Once upon a time, Manti Te’o recalled, "I used to make myself as a running back on video games and win the Heisman (Trophy) as a fictional character."

Not even in his wildest dreams, apparently, did linebackers chase the most prestigious award in college athletics.

And small wonder, since in the 76-year history of the Heisman, only one primarily defensive performer — Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997 — has received the statue symbolizing college football’s greatest player.

Yet as the North Shore native lines up against Miami today on national television, Te’o’s early-season showing has people at least wondering out loud and in print … could a linebacker win it?

For an award that has gone to a quarterback or running back in each of the past 14 years, that is something in itself., a respected surveyor of the Heisman landscape, has Te’o currently ranked as the No. 4 contender behind quarterbacks Geno Smith (West Virginia), Collin Klein (Kansas State) and Braxton Miller (Ohio State).

Admittedly it is early and the Heisman derby is fluid, as Baylor’s Robert Griffin III proved by roaring into the picture last year. But Te’o, by dint of his leadership and intuitive play, has people questioning whether the award has to continue to go to a QB or running back.

"For me, that’s great, I’m very thankful," Te’o told reporters the other day of his Heisman attention. "I mean, it’s kind of surreal that I’m on the Heisman list."

What he has done to date, on the way to magazine covers, is help the Fighting Irish defense stand out as the only one in the country that has yet to give up a rushing touchdown. Along with his 38 tackles for the 4-0 Irish, Te’o has three interceptions, two fumble recoveries, three QB hurries and seven passes disrupted.

It would take a remarkable confluence of events for Te’o to win the Heisman: He has to stay healthy while continuing to dish out dirty lickings and making game-changing plays. He needs some of the so-called "skill position" players to have off-nights. And, most importantly, the ninth-ranked Fighting Irish have to keep winning. A 10-2 season probably won’t do it.

Te’o is an embraceable personality with an inspiring story who also benefits from the every-week visibility and traditional appeal of Notre Dame. If a linebacker is ever to nab this award, it is a good chance it could be someone from under the storied Golden Dome, which has produced seven previous winners.

Games against Stanford (Oct. 13), Oklahoma (Oct. 27) and Southern California (Nov. 24), in particular, give Te’o stages on which to shine.

But just getting to New York in December as a finalist would be noteworthy, since no other linebacker has finished in the top five in 19 years.

Recalling his Heisman fantasy at a news conference, Te’o said, "(To be) a candidate for that — and in real life — is a real surprise for me. All that does for me is it shows me that I’m heading in the right direction. I’m doing what I need to do and I’ve just got to continue to do what I’ve got to do."

Which is a winning attitude to have, whether it comes with a trophy or not.

Reach Ferd Lewis at or 529-4820.

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