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Football: Rookie Te’o learning role quickly

Bill Brink | Friday, October 9, 2009

Manti Te’o made a tackle. He doesn’t remember the play, or even the game, but he remembers looking up into the stands and seeing his parents smiling.

For the freshman linebacker, who speaks of his family as the most important influence in his life, there’s nothing better than that. Especially because they live five time zones away, time spent with them becomes more important.

“There is nothing I can do that will bring them closer,” he said. “The only thing I can do is honor them by the way I play and conduct myself.

Te’o was the No. 2 recruit in the 2009 recruiting class, the middle linebacker who can revolutionize Notre Dame’s defense over the next four years. Until the Washington game, he received limited playing time, but shined when he did play. He sacked Purdue quarterback Joey Elliott in the final minutes to help Notre Dame secure a close victory and used his speed to keep coverage breakdowns from becoming big plays.

But against Washingon, he started and played significant minutes. He used them well, coming away with 10 tackles.

“You’re going to go through some growing pains when he’s going to be out there that much,” coach Charlie Weis said Sunday. “But his speed and athleticism covered for a lot of the things right there, and I thought he was very active and involved in a whole bunch of plays.”

Te’o said his speed covered his mistakes sometimes, but that mistakes got swept up in the enjoyment of the game.

“You don’t really want to make a mistake, but the fun of the game kind of takes away from that,” he said.

When he does mess up, defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta makes sure he hears about it. But then the other linebackers, namely Brian, Scott and Toryan Smith, step in and pick him up.

“They’re like parents,” he said. “They’ve been there. They’ve done that.”

Tenuta can’t be too hard on him, though, because he hangs on Tenuta’s every word. “I’m always listening,” he said. More than one sentence started with “Coach Tenuta says…”

“He knows so much about the game,” Te’o said. “You’d be a fool not to listen to him.”

For example, regarding what technical aspect of play he needs to improve on:

“Coach Tenuta always says use your eyes,” Te’o said. “I just have to follow what my eyes tell me.”

Some instructions from the coaching staff aren’t so nebulous. What did the coaches tell the defense about tackling, a weakness thus far?

“Get better at tackling,” Te’o said. “Don’t miss so many tackles.

“Coach Tenuta says use your shoulder pads, that’s what they’re for.”

He’s adjusted to game speed just fine; the weather is another story. After the Washington game, when it was cold and rainy, he said he hugged his parents – then got off the field.

“It was a big relief to get out of the cold,” he said.

His iPhone app showing the weather in Hawaii next to the weather in South Bend, he said, doesn’t help.

Adjusting to college life also took some getting used to.

“It’s very time-consuming. You’ve got to know how to manage your time,” he said. “That comes with maturity.”

Te’o, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, has found a second home at church. The people there welcome him, he said, and ask about the games. He’s still considering taking a mission, but hasn’t decided. He said the success of the team would not factor into his decision.

“It’s always on my mind,” he said. “It’s football right now.”