Those who are interested in personal narratives may find the story of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o more compelling than do the scouts, coaches, and personnel executives who are now responsible for deciding where Te'o will go in the 2013 NFL Draft. Though he was thought by many to be a sure-fire top-5 pick -- there were even some who believed Te'o to be worthy of the first overall selection -- Te'o's flaws were exposed against Alabama's big-boy offense in the Crimson Tide's 42-14 beat down of the Fighting Irish in Monday's BCS Championship game.
Facing an offensive line that had poleaxed opponents all season, and a multi-headed run game that proved impossible to stop, Te'o looked very much like an NFL prospect with impressive range in space and coverage, but a real need for improved core and functional strength before he can truly take on what the NFL has to offer.
“This definitely sucks,” Te’o said after the game. “But I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I wouldn’t trade this team for anything. I wouldn’t do anything differently. Obviously, we wish that the night could have ended in a different way, but the season, the year, my career here, I’ve been really blessed to be at Notre Dame and I’ll forever be proud to say that I’m a Notre Dame Fighting Irish.”
At 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, Te'o isn't set up to be one of the new wave of lighter, faster linebackers in the vein of Luke Kuechly, Lavonte David, or Bobby Wagner. That bigger kind of linebacker needs to hit run fits hard, and stop big plays from happening at or near the line of scrimmage. That did not happen in this game. Te'o was pushed back and out of gaps, he didn't close when he needed to with consistency, and his ability to cover a lot of ground in a short period of time was rendered relatively useless as Alabama simply punched Notre Dame in the mouth with alarming regularity.
Where that leaves the winner of the Walter Camp, Bednarik, Lombardi, and Nagurski awards is open to debate, but in an NFL that does not value the traditional 4-3 inside linebacker as is once did, Te'o may find himself on the outside looking in unless he positions himself in pre-draft workouts as the kind nickel linebacker who can cover half a football field and deal with a multi-faceted NFL passing game. That's where he has more potential, because Te'o really does cover ground impressively. When it comes to hitting run gaps with authority, Te'o may need more help from defensive tackles than some people imagined.
His character is not in question -- the way Te'o was able to keep his season on track after the deaths of his girlfriend and grandmother in September speaks so very well of his determination and love of the game. By all accounts, Te'o is a great leader, and the kind of player you want on your defense to line other players up and get them rolling.
But when it comes to the NFL, and what the pro game requires, Te'o opened a Pandora's Box that the higher league will have to explore. He now has the scouting combine, and the rest of the pre-draft process, to put those concerns to rest.
“I just use it as fuel, I just use it as fuel to be better,” Te’o concluded. “That’s all you can use it for. Like I said, life goes on. What are you going to take from this? Are you just going to sulk and just sit back and feel sorry for yourself? Or are you going to get up and do something about it? I have an opportunity to do something about it. And one day, it’s going to make me better.”
The NFL would like that to be so.
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