ND's Te'o seeks historic Heisman
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — If Manti Te'o's career at Notre Dame has seemed like something straight out of a Hollywood script, perhaps it is fitting the linebacker is cast as a underdog in the final two scenes of his collegiate career.
First, he will try to become the first defense-only player to win the Heisman Trophy, going up against a couple of quarterbacks Saturday night in Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Kansas State's Collin Klein. Next month, he will lead the top-ranked Fighting Irish against defending champion Alabama in the BCS championship game as Notre Dame tries to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start a season unranked and win it all.
Te'o still finds it all a bit hard to believe.
“It's something that I never — I don't think anybody could anticipate or expect. It's always a goal to be the best, to be the best you can be, and I just — I didn't think that it would be to this magnitude,” he said.” I'm just very grateful to be in this situation and to represent my team.”
Te'o, named the Walter Camp national player of the year as well as the Chuck Bednarik defensive player of the year Thursday night, has represented the Irish amazingly well, showing courage in playing his best game of the season just days after both his girlfriend and grandmother died a few hours apart. He never missed practice and made a season-high 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 victory over then-No. 10 Michigan State.
A week later, on the day his girlfriend was buried, Te'o had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, and had two more quarterback hurries that led to interceptions in a 13-6 win over Michigan as many Irish fans wore leis to show their support for the star who grew up in Hawaii.
The biggest item missing from Te'o's résumé from the perspective of some Heisman Trophy voters might be that he's never passed or run for a touchdown, just about a prerequisite for winners. He has plenty of other impressive numbers, though. His seven interceptions are the most ever by a Notre Dame linebacker and the most by any linebacker since Georgia's Tony Taylor had that many in 2006. Te'o also has 103 tackles.
His coaches and teammates, though, say the numbers don't begin to tell the story of Te'o. He has been the face and heartbeat of not only the Notre Dame defense but the entire team that kept surprising naysayers, from winning at Oklahoma to those stirring goal-line stands against Stanford and USC.
“If a guy like Manti isn't going to win the Heisman they should just make it an offensive award and just give it to the offensive player every year and cut to the chase,” coach Brian Kelly said.
The only defensive player to win the trophy was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. But Woodson also played some wide receiver and returned punts.
Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he's never understood why defensive players don't win the award and believes Te'o is deserving.
“They're noted for their defense and he's the quarterback of the defense,” Stoops said. “I don't think there's any question he's a guy that should have a great opportunity to win it.”
With seven Heisman winners, Notre Dame has had some unconventional winners. Paul Hornung, who played quarterback, halfback and safety, is the only Heisman winner to play for a losing team. The Irish were 2-8 when he won in 1956. Quarterback John Huarte won in 1964 while leading the Irish to a 9-1 record a season after failing to letter for a 2-7 squad.