Was there any question as to who would be number one? We wrap up our look at the 10 most important Notre Dame players for 2011 with THE absolute most important player, junior middle linebacker Manti Te’o. Te’o isn’t just the most important player, he’s also the best. And this season he has a chance to make the leap from really, really good player to an All-American while leading the Fighting Irish defense as they try to become the dominant group everyone expects them to be.
Te’o should be used to the hype by now. Considered the best defensive recruit Notre Dame signed in at least 20 years, Te’o has been one of the most scrutinized players on the roster for two years now. He could have gone almost anywhere, but chose to come to Notre Dame over USC on signing day 2009 because that’s where he felt was supposed to go. He hasn’t diasppointed recording 196 tackles in his first two seasons, 15 for loss with two sacks. His 133 tackles last season were 40 more than the next guy. Yet, with all his talent and speed, he’s hasn’t reached his potential quite yet. Too many missed tackles, especially in the Michigan State loss, marred his performance somewhat. Te’o will be the first to tell you he needs to play better.
That sounds like I’m saying he was good, but not that good. That’s far from the case. He’s been brilliant, but if he can get just a little better, he’ll be the dominanting force in the middle the Irish have lacked in…who knows how long?
Te’o give the Irish a strong presence up the middle. When you build a defense, you have to be strong right up the gut. With two other important parts Louis Nix (#7) and Harrison Smith (#5) along the line and at safety respectively, the middle of the field should be well taken care of with Te’o manning the linebacker spot.
Te’o must be the leader of the defense. He needs to know where everybody should be and what their assignments are on any given play. He must be the enforcer out there and, to paraphrase Will Patton in Remember the Titans, make sure every opponent will remember the day they played the Irish.
Expect Te’o to collect a ton of tackles this season, maybe even challenge the record for most tackles in a season currently set by Bob Crable with his 187 in 1979. If he can even get close to that, you know he’s been a beast which would also lead you to believe that the Notre Dame defense has become the force we all expect.
2011 could be the year Notre Dame returns to the elite level of college football. To get there the defense has to dominate and Manto Te’o must be a driving force behind that. He truly is the make or break player for the Fighting Irish this season.