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An incredible asset’

Andrew Owens | Thursday, October 27, 2011

Each Saturday in the Notre Dame locker room, a warrior applies eye black to his face and quietly envisions his role in the battle that is about to ensue. If Manti Te’o seems contemplative, it’s because he is — in everything he does.

“When I’m preparing, I sometimes like to have my little quiet zone and just reflect and meditate and really focus in, but overall I’m just really cheerful, really friendly,” the junior linebacker said. “I just try to relax. I feel whenever I try to focus too much and get too psyched for the game it hinders me a bit and doesn’t allow me to just play, so I’m rather loose, but still very calm.”

A calm before the storm, really. Te’o has recorded 69 tackles, eight-and-a-half for loss and four sacks in the first seven contests of the year, all team-highs. The No. 1 defensive prospect coming out of high school who chose Notre Dame over USC has done nothing to disappoint in his three seasons with the Irish.

If it seems like he’s been around the ball even more this year than in his freshman and sophomore campaigns, well, it’s because he has. Te’o attributed the improvement to his preparation while watching film during the week.

“It definitely has helped me to know and have a general idea of where the offense is going,” Te’o said. “Before the offense steps on the field I have a general idea of what plays they’re going to run, where it’s going to go, who’s going to get it by just the way they line up, and that comes from my film study and really helps me.

“[Defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco and [safeties coach Chuck] Martin have especially helped me with that film study and cleaning up what I look at and focusing my attention on certain things so I can apply it.”

Te’o’s impact on the program is not limited to his on-field performance on Saturdays. He is the caliber of player who ignites a program, and Notre Dame was in desperate need of a defensive jewel to complete its 2009 recruiting class when Te’o committed to the Irish.

“So we could have lost Manti Te’o in terms of the football player,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said.

“What we would have never overcome is the leader that he is. So when people talk about the complete package, it’s that he carries that same pride with him in everything that he does. And that’s what he brings to our football program. And that’s why there’s never a day that he’s not looking to be better. And I think it’s the pride that drives that.”

Even after last Saturday’s loss to USC dropped Notre Dame from BCS contention, Te’o said he continues to hit the field everyday with the same mentality to improve.

“My hopes are still the same,” he said. “My hopes are to win every game, to play the best ball I can play and to help my team win … Everybody’s getting back to business, everybody’s doing small things and just focusing on that and all the bigger things are falling in place.”

NFL dreams on hold

Once the season is over, Te’o will have a difficult decision to make: Declare for the NFL Draft with a year of eligibility remaining, or pass up millions of dollars and return to school with unfinished business to accomplish.

“The only thing that I’ve been working on is to help my team win and playing the best brand of football that I could possibly play and just enjoying every moment,” he said when asked about the looming choice.

One thing he did say about it should come as no surprise — his family and faith will be heavily involved in the evaluation.

“I think [my counsel when deciding] is going to be very small,” Te’o said. “Just the people who I know are in it for my best interests — of course my parents and family, the coaches — so when that time comes we’ll make the proper decision.”

The bond between master and pupil

Te’o has developed a close bond with Diaco since the defensive coordinator arrived at Notre Dame in December 2009.

“Coach Diaco has really been that father figure away from home,” Te’o said. “His door is always open to me and the rest of the LBs, so he’s always been that guy that we can talk to, that guy I can call at 2 in the morning if something’s troubling me. I didn’t feel like I couldn’t call him.

“He was always there, he’s always there and you just have that level of trust and respect with him and the family.”

While it should come as no surprise that a defensive standout 5,000 miles away from home has found a fatherly figure at college, it’s the impact Te’o has had on Diaco that is remarkable.

“He’s such a rare, special person and package,” Diaco said. “He’s an incredible asset to the student body and the classroom. He’s an incredible asset obviously to our football team.

“He’s incredible to any kind of friend circle, social circle that he’s involved with. He’s an incredible asset to his family and the people that really love him. He’s been an incredible asset in my life, just as somebody I enjoy being around.”

While proud of the inspiration he is to others including Diaco, Te’o attributed his character to his roots.

“It’s definitely humbling and it definitely goes to show that my parents raised me the right way,” he said. “And I just hope to pass that on to people I come in contact with and for them to realize that wherever you go, whoever you meet, you never know what kind of impact you might have on them.

Learning from the best to be the best

Te’o was named a semifinalist for the Dick Butkus Award, given annually to college football’s top linebacker. While he is a standout at the position, he studies the best at the professional level to pick up on characteristics he can add to his performance.

“As far as collegiate linebackers go, everyone’s different,” Te’o said. “I don’t pay too much attention to that, my teammates tend to do that for me. For me I focus on who’s the best overall and to me that’s Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, Dick Butkus, all of them.

“So I try to mimic my game after them and watch them all the time. If I’m watching any linebackers and keeping track of linebackers, it’s them.”

Te’o said he studies the behavior of those linebackers on game day, but also their approaches in other facets of life that help them succeed.

“[I like] their intensity, how they move, how they live their lives. With Ray Lewis, everything he does on film study to workouts, work ethic, faith, dedication, that kind of stuff. I try to learn from them and I want to be the best.”

Naturally, the introspective junior linebacker has considered what he wants his lasting legacy to be when he takes off the blue and gold for the final time, whenever that may be.

“When I leave here I want everyone to remember No. 5 and in order to do that, I need to be the best and if I want to be the best, I have to do what the best do.”