FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Notre Dame Fighting Irish defense, which ranks as one of the best in college football this season, got that way by its swarming, suffocating style of play. It ranks at or near the top in every major statistical category, and leads the nation in scoring defense, giving up just over 10 points a game.
Much like the defense has been the strongest part of the Notre Dame team, senior Manti Te’o is the strongest component of his defense. Te’o, who has delivered tours de force all season from his linebacker position, leads his team with 103 tackles.
Te’o also has a nose for the ball, accumulating seven interceptions this season, tied for second-most in the nation, and most of any linebacker.
“He’s an integral part of this defense,” said sophomore safety Matthias Farley. “You know what you’re going to get out of Manti each and every week. To have someone out there like that with you, it’s a comforting thing.”
For his accomplishments, Te’o has been heralded as one of the best players in college football, and has the hardware to prove it, garnering numerous end-of-the-year awards. But, for all his feats on the field, Te’o’s true value to his team isn’t in his natural ability, but his leadership.
Te’o’s leadership isn’t just limited to him leading by example, however. Te’o is also the emotional leader of his team, and constantly serves as the emotional linchpin of his defense. For Farley, Te’o’s emotion can be as powerful a leading tool as his play on the field.
“It depends what day you get him,” Farley said. “He’s always going to lead by example, no matter what, but when he does speak, everyone listens.”
Indeed, Te’o’s bearing on and off the field doesn’t just affect his teammates, either. Even Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said even he’s been affected by Te’o and his personality. For Diaco, Te’o has proven to be a leader on and off the field.
“On a day, as a coach, you might be feeling a little down, maybe a little distracted with the world’s pulls, Manti is easy to see, look at, and you see his face, and feel energized,” Diaco said. “That’s just the kind of guy he is.”
Now, just mere days away from playing in the national championship game, Te’o is providing that leadership more than ever for his team. Indeed, Diaco said Te’o has practiced harder this past week than he has the entire rest of the season.
For Te’o, however, it comes as naturally for him as any other game.
“I know that a lot of the success you experience on gameday was already done throughout the week,” Te’o said. “I can’t just slack the whole week, then game day comes, and say ‘OK, I’m ready, I’m going to go all out now.’”
Still, the enormity of the game hasn’t escaped Te’o, and he said he’s excited to have the opportunity to lead his team one last time on the field.
“I’m very very blessed to be able to serve this team, and to do that, to be part of this team, in this journey that we’ve taken.” Te’o said. “For me to run out of that tunnel for the first time, to run out of it for the last time, to be in a brighter spot than it was when I ran out of it for the first time, is definitely a good cause not only for myself, but for the rest of the seniors and for our team.”