NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish are making as much noise as any program in college football through the first four weeks of the season. The Fighting Irish are off to a 4-0 start. With an impressive set of wins already including back-to-back victories over Big Ten powers Michigan State and Michigan, Notre Dame looks like they are finally back to being one of college football’s top contenders.
The No. 10 Fighting Irish have talent on both sides of the ball as well as on special teams, but it is their defense that is making them a contender. Notre Dame ranks fourth nationally with only 9 points allowed per game, and are 16th nationally in total defense with 291.3 yards allowed per game.
The leader of that defense is senior inside linebacker Manti Te’o. If you’re a college football fan, you’ve known who Te’o was since he became an immediate star as a freshman at Notre Dame. If you’re an NFL fan, you should get to know him soon.
Te’o is the best inside linebacker currently in college football, and by quite a wide margin. A second-team All-American in 2011, he was named a consensus preseason first-team All-American this year, with last year’s first-teamer, Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, having moved on to the NFL.
Through four weeks of the season, Te’o is living up to the hype. Te’o leads the Fighting Irish with 36 total tackles, while he also has three interceptions, two tackles for loss and two pass deflections on the season.
Te’o’s game should translate well to the NFL. At 6’2’’ and 255 pounds, he has prototypical size for an NFL linebacker, while he is also a very good athlete for his size. His game projects to translate to any scheme: he could play any of the three linebacker positions in a 4-3 scheme, and play inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense.
Te’o’s intelligence shows when he is on the football field. Middle linebackers are expected to play leading roles for their defense, and Te’o fits the bill, as he can consistently be seen calling out plays and making sure his teammates on defense know their assignments. Additionally, Te’o has tremendous vision and instincts—he does a tremendous job of reading plays and reacting to them, and as a result, he is in on defensive stops more often than not.
Te’o may not necessarily light up the NFL Scouting Combine in February, but he is plenty athletic for a linebacker. His instincts always keep him a step ahead, while he has a very good blend of speed and lateral quickness.
Te’o is very good at diagnosing run plays and getting in position to make stops, but is also very good at locking on in man-to-man pass coverage with running backs and tight ends. When in pass coverage, Te’o usually blankets his opponent in man-to-man, and if they do make catches, he is almost always in position to tackle them right away.
Te’o is at his best when inside the hashmarks, but he has the athletic ability to get out in space and track down runners to make tackles in space and outside the numbers. Without any severe limitations to his game, Te’o should be a three-down linebacker right away in the NFL.
Te’o may not necessarily be Patrick Willis or Ray Lewis at the next level, in that he is not a track star in a linebacker’s body and is known for his jarring hits. What he has shown in his career, however, is that he can come up with big plays at opportune times, and as a solid all-around linebacker with a complete skill set, he could be among the safest picks for the 2013 NFL draft.
One more trait that Te’o truly exemplified early this season are his emotional strength, toughness and dedication.
His physical strength, ability to fight through blockers and toughness certainly show up on the field of play, but he overcame an even more incredible obstacle when he played Michigan State on Sept. 15. On that night, he had a 12-tackle performance less than four days removed from the deaths of both his grandmother and girlfriend, as he managed to channel his mourning into an inspired performance to lead the Fighting Irish to a victory.
Te’o is not quite an elite NFL prospect, but he is a safe first-round pick who could end up as a top-10 draft choice as the draft class’s best inside linebacker, much like Kuechly was as the No. 9 overall pick in 2012. Any team with a need to upgrade their linebacker corps should have reason to be interested in him.
Te’o, however, is not the only 2013 NFL draft prospect on Notre Dame’s roster. A quick look at the rest of the top five prospects for the upcoming draft class for the 4-0 Fighting Irish:
2. TE Tyler Eifert (Redshirt Jr.)
In what currently projects to be a very weak tight end class for the 2013 NFL draft, Tyler Eifert stands out from the rest of the pack.
Eifert is very similar to the tight end he succeeded at Notre Dame, Kyle Rudolph, was a second-round draft pick in 2011. He has great size at 6’6’’ and 251 pounds, and is a very good athlete for his size.
He fits the growing mold of the tight end position in the NFL, which is players with basketball size and athletic ability paired with great receiving skills. He is also a solid blocker, making him a well-rounded tight end prospect.
Eifert is off to a somewhat slow start to the 2012 season—he only has one catch in the past two games—and much of that is a result of opposing defenses game planning against him. He has shown that he can put up big numbers though, having done so in 2011 with 63 receptions for 803 yards and five touchdowns.
Unless Eifert is surpassed as the draft class’ top tight end, he looks like a safe bet to a second-round draft pick.