College Football: Highly touted linebacker starts Irish career
SOUTH BEND, Ind.ó About the only things that stood out about freshman linebacker Manti Te’o as practice for the season got under way were the No. 5 jersey and visor he had on.
The visors worn by some of the Fighting Irish were a first for the team and all the other linebackers on the two-deep chart wore numbers in the 40s. Te’o was the only one in single digits, sharing the same number as tailback Armando Allen. With Te’o starting camp at 6-foot-2 and 244 pounds, there was no trouble distinguishing between the two.
“He’s a big guy,” quarterback Jimmy Clausen said.
Te’o arrived on campus from Hawaii as the most highly rated defensive recruit for Notre Dame in years. Recruiting analyst Tom Lemming called him the best recruit at linebacker since Bob Crable in 1978.
Te’o started his first day in the back of the line as the warmed up, appearing as if he was just trying to fit in. From what coaches are saying, it won’t take him long to move to the front. He starts practice listed as the backup to weakside linebacker Brian Smith.
“He’s a football player first and foremost, and he’s a lot more mature than a lot of guys that come out at 17, 18 years old,” defensive coordinator Jon Tenuta said. “He is very confident, yet he understands the game from both sides and knows a lot of how to fit, whether it’s the run game or the pass game or whatever. He’s a special type guy.”
Coach Charlie Weis was asked to compare how ready Te’o is to play with how prepared Clausen, the most anticipated recruit to arrive on the Notre Dame campus in more than a decade, was when he arrived in South Bend two years ago. Clausen started his second game despite still recovering from an elbow injury.
“Jimmy physically was probably less ready to play than Manti is physically. Manti is 245 pounds,” Weis said. “If you put him and Brian Smith next to each other, you don’t really see much of a physical difference.”
Te’o was not available for comment Saturday because Weis allows minimal access to freshmen. His teammates, though, said they were eager to see what Te’o can do.
“Everybody’s looking forward to seeing him on the football field, us and fans included,” fellow linebacker Scott Smith said. “He’s certainly shown a willingness to learn this summer, a willingness to ask questions.”
Brian Smith said Te’o has looked as if he’s ready to jump in the mix.
“We’re going to see what he can bring to the table, see if he can help us win some games,” Smith said.
There doesn’t appear to be any doubt Te’o will play this season, moreso a matter of when. Kerry Neal started five games as a freshman two years ago and Brian Smith started three that season. The last Irish linebacker to start the first game as a freshman was Kory Minor in 1995.
Aside from his youth, about the only thing that appears to be going against Te’o is that his last name isn’t Smith. The three players listed as starting linebackers for the Irish as practices begin are Scott Smith, Toryan Smith and Brian Smith. And that doesn’t include Harrison Smith, who started at linebacker last season and has moved to free safety.
Tenuta, who also coaches the linebackers, said he’s still not sure which linebacker spot Te’o is best suited for.
“I don’t have to slate him anywhere yet,” Tenuta said. “Obviously I’m going to play him where it’s easiest for him. Then the more you learn, then you can play some other spots. You have to learn the system first. Wherever he does best is where he’s going to play.”
Clausen said he gave Te’o some advice about being under scrutiny.
“I just told him go out there and be yourself. You’re a great player and you know it. Just go out there each and every day and work hard and you’ll be fine,” he said. “I just told him to have a lot of fun with it. It’s a great time in your life and just go out there and perform.”