Man(ti) of the hour
Matt Gamber | Saturday, August 22, 2009
The expectations surrounding heralded linebacker Manti Te’o could be summed up by the scene at Friday’s freshman media day, where he was undoubtedly the center of attention.
Since the prized recruit announced his commitment to the Irish on signing day, any discussion of Notre Dame’s freshman class has begun with the Honolulu, Hawaii, native. But when he first greeted the Irish media contingent in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex, Te’o downplayed the attention he has received.
“I just try to be myself and take every day one at a time. I don’t pay attention to all the hype,” Te’o said. “Just like everybody else, I’m just trying to make the team better.”
Te’o has been somewhat limited in camp by a hamstring injury, but Irish coach Charlie Weis said Thursday that the linebacker has only missed “parts” of practices. The injury won’t keep Te’o out of the rotation in the season opener against Nevada on Sept. 5, Weis said.
“I expect to see him on the field in the opener,” Weis said. “I don’t think we’ll be seeing him standing on the sideline very long.”
The same could be said for several of Te’o’s classmates, including wide receiver Shaquelle Evans, who has worked his way into the third-receiver battle behind junior Golden Tate and sophomore Michael Floyd. The Inglewood, Calif., native impressed at Notre Dame’s open practice last Saturday, and Weis likes the flexibility his presence gives the rest of the Irish offense.
“We all know Michael and Golden are going to be on the field a bunch,” Weis said. “So does he end up as backup to Golden, because he has similar type speed? Or do you put him opposite of Golden, and now you have speed on both sides out there, rotate him in with that three-wide group?”
Fellow receiver Roby Toma, Te’o’s high school teammate, has caught his head coach’s eye by exceeding early expectations, particularly as a blocker, despite his 5-foot-9-inch, 175-pound frame.
“Everyone thought that Roby was a throw-in. He’s the Punahou throw-in,” Weis said. “But that’s not the way it’s working out. He’s been competitive.”
Tailbacks Cierre Wood and Theo Riddick both took significant reps in Saturday’s open practice with junior starter Armando Allen not participating in full-contact drills, and both could contribute in the backfield and on special teams right away.
Tight end Tyler Eifert is making a push to play behind sophomore Kyle Rudolph and junior Mike Ragone, and Weis used Eifert as an example of the “proverbial semantics conversation about playing or not playing freshmen” that coaches have at this time of the year.
“He’s making it tough for us to want to not play him,” Weis said. “He’s picked it up mentally and physically he’s handled the roles of a tight end, including the blocking, which has been a very pleasant surprise for us.”
Though offensive linemen Chris Watt, Alex Bullard and Zach Martin aren’t likely to see much, if any, playing time with an experienced group of linemen ahead of them, Weis said all three impressed him.
“In some other years, I think they might be playing in the two-deep right now,” Weis said. “Fortunately, we can wait a little while. We’ll see how it goes. But we’ve been happy with all three of them.”
Fellow freshman offensive lineman Jordan Cowart has already been named the starting long snapper.
On the other side of the ball, defensive lineman Tyler Stockton has impressed the coaching staff but might remain behind several talented veterans on the depth chart.
“He’s done a really nice job, but there’s a perfect situation of he might be a luxury item,” Weis said. “Here’s a guy that you could spend that year developing, because he’ll be that much better of a player.”
Depth at the linebacker position will likely preserve a year of eligibility for both Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox. In the secondary, corner E.J. Banks has been joined by fellow early genrollee Zeke Motta, who moved from linebacker to safety. Motta emerged as one of the team’s quickest, most athletic players in the spring, and Weis said he’ll see the field immediately.
“We need to play him on special teams,” Weis said. “I see him playing on all four teams, and don’t be surprised if you end up, as the year goes on, seeing him play on defense too.”
Both punter Ben Turk and placekicker Nick Tausch have challenged returning upperclassmen for starting roles. Weis said Thursday “the punter situation is too close to call” between Turk and senior Eric Maust, though using Maust to preserve a year of eligibility for Turk is an option Weis will consider.
“As far as leg strength, there’s no one here with the leg strength [Turk] has,” Weis said. “He’s got big-time pop.”
With the quality and depth of Weis’ last few recruiting classes, the Irish have talented returnees at virtually every position that will allow most of the newcomers a year to grow acclimated to the college game. Still, though, there are the few who have already secured a spot in the rotation – no small feat, Weis said.
“The guys that get on the field now as freshmen are getting on the field because they’re really good, or they’re playing on special teams,” Weis said. “But I’m telling you, on offense and defense right now, to get on the field, that means you’re pretty good.”