Manti Te’o for Heisman

Sorry, Johnny Manziel. Te’o’s performance and team leadership make him the most deserving player in 2012.

Back in late October, the networks dredged up old footage of Notre Dame back Dick Lynch’s end run from 1957 that snapped Oklahoma’s 47-game winning streak. Fans were reminded that the Irish had beaten OU six consecutive times, dating back to that milestone win. ND entered Norman to face the Sooners with a 7-0 record, ready for a major test. It was a huge spot, and Manti Te’o knew just what to do before the game.

The senior middle linebacker was prepared to play. That much was obvious. All year, he had been the heart of the Irish defense and, in fact, the entire team. Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly had wanted to assemble a nasty front seven that would define his team as a physical outfit, rather than a soft spread group. Te’o was the man to lead that effort.

Moments before the Irish went out to meet Oklahoma in their biggest game of the year, Te’o didn’t want to hit. He wanted to talk – to redshirt freshman quarterback Everett Golson. Before the season, Golson wasn’t considered a serious candidate for the starting QB job. But he had taken over early and had shown promise, if not consistently outstanding play. With such a big road game looming, Golson was looked at as a possible weak link, and Te’o wanted to make sure the rookie would be confident and prepared to deliver. Te’o asked Kelly for permission and delivered the pep talk. Afterward, Golson could be seen smiling.

Three hours later, Golson had run for 64 yards and a score, thrown for 177 yards, with no picks, and led the Irish to a season-defining 30-13 victory over the Sooners. Oh, yeah, Te’o had a team-high 11 tackles, including two for loss, and an interception while keying a defense that limited Oklahoma to 15 yards on the ground.

That’s the way it has been all year for Te’o. He has inspired his teammates with his play and with his leadership. There is absolutely no way Notre Dame is 12-0 without him. In fact, the team might not even have eight wins. His tremendous performance has led his team, distinguished him as a standout and has made him deserving of my Heisman Trophy vote.

First, let’s go over a few things here. I couldn’t care less whether Te’o plays for Notre Dame or South Alabama. His candidacy – at least from my point of view – is not the by-product of the vaunted “Notre Dame hype machine.” In fact, the Irish’s contract with NBC puts it at something of a disadvantage, because it removes the school somewhat from ESPN’s gigantic promotional machine. The four-letter people don’t like to give full synergism to teams that only show up on their airwaves half the time. So, don’t pin this on the Golden Dome crowd.

Secondly, Te’o’s position doesn’t matter. The Heisman goes to the “Most Outstanding Player” in college football. In a year without a great running back or passer who has separated himself from the rest of those at his position, it’s the perfect time to look to the other side of the ball. And remember, I voted for Ndamukong Suh in 2009.

Finally, I have absolutely no predilection against voting for a freshman. So, my choice of Te’o over Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel has nothing to do with picking a senior over a first-year player. (Manziel redshirted last year.)

This is based entirely on Te’o’s production on the field, his leadership off it and his overall impact on Notre Dame’s season. Two years ago, when Stanford hammered Notre Dame, 37-14, physically dominating them along the lines of scrimmage, Kelly decided that the road to national prominence was paved with punches to the mouth, not the finesse of a spread offense. This year’s ND team could do that, and Te’o was the main reason. He compiled 103 tackles (52 solo) and picked off seven passes, a huge total for a middle linebacker. Te’o has remarkable instincts in passing coverage and is extremely decisive when stopping the run. He played some of his best football in ND’s most meaningful games, picking off two passes and making eight tackles against Michigan, registering a game-high 11 stops against Stanford and intercepting a throw in the win over USC.

“He has an uncanny ability to make big plays in big games,” one NFL personnel evaluator said.

Some might consider leadership and ability to make Notre Dame better by his personality immaterial in the Heisman discussion. I don’t. In college, more so than in the NFL, a player’s willingness to lift his teammates is huge. Te’o has that.

“He’s an A-plus-plus-plus kid,” another NFL executive says. “He is the Ray Lewis of that team. He has unbelievable intangibles and an unbelievable makeup.”

Manziel had a great year. He led the SEC in rushing, quite an accomplishment for a QB who also threw for 3,419 yards and 24 TDs. Manziel’s play in A&M’s upset of Alabama was tremendous. But Te’o had the stats and an impact that goes way beyond the box score. For all of that, he deserves the 2012 Heisman.

SUCKER PUNCHES

  • The Eagles showed some offensive promise in Sunday night’s 38-33 loss to the Cowboys, and that’s enough to make Nick Foles the quarterback for the rest of the season. The franchise owes Michael Vick nothing – except a large amount of money — but it must find out whether Foles can be a viable quarterback next season.
  • Oh, yeah, farewell, Jim Washburn. We won’t miss your wide nine one bit.
  • NBA commissioner David Stern’s decision to fine San Antonio $250,000 because coach Gregg Popovich let his best (and, for the most part, oldest) players leave a grueling road early shows the league cares less about teams’ long-term outlooks and more about TV dollars. This would not have been an issue if the Spurs hadn’t been on TNT that night. Hats off to Popovich for doing what’s best for his team, and here’s hoping Stern starts fining the Wizards, Kings and Raptors for cheating the fans every night.
  • Here’s hoping those who vote for the Baseball Hall of Fame have the good sense to leave juicers BALCO Bonds, Roger Clemens and Sammy Sosa off their ballots. Actually, the Hall should be closed to anyone who played between 1994-2009, but let’s start with these three egregious steroid abusers and go from there.

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