Thursday, February 5, 2009

I'm confused by this

Manti Te'o is a consensus five-star recruit out of Hawaii and one of the top linebackers in the country. There's no real debate about that -- he was ranked as the #2 overall prospect by ESPN, #6 by Scout and #12 by Rivals. He's the real deal, according to everyone with an opinion that means anything.

Te'o committed to Notre Dame on Wednesday, choosing the Irish over USC and UCLA and others. This was an odd choice on a couple of levels, but what confuses me most is this: Te'o is Mormon, and has stated that he plans on taking a mission after his freshman year in college. Notre Dame = not Mormon.

I realize that not everyone who goes to Notre Dame is Catholic, of course, but it seems that if your faith is important enough that you plan on interrupting a portion of your young adult life (and career) to go on a two-year mission, it would certainly have an impact on where you'd choose to spend the surrounding four years.

This makes me wonder if we might see a rehash of the Ben Olson situation. Olson, you may recall, was the top QB recruit in the country and 2002. He was also Mormon and committed to BYU, only to leave for a two-year mission immediately upon his arrival. Olson never played a down for BYU, instead transferring to UCLA in 2005, where he played off and on while battling a series of bizarre foot injuries.

There are two things about Olson's situation that are relevant for Te'o.

First, there's no guarantee that he'll return to Notre Dame. This has already become a concern on Notre Dame message boards, and rightly so. Because Te'o will be on leave from his NCAA eligibility during his mission (similar to a military exemption), there's no additional penalty if he chooses to transfer during that time. Te'o would basically be a free agent, and you can be sure that USC, BYU, UCLA and probably a whole bunch of other schools will be vying for his services upon his return.

The other issue is whether Te'o will be the same player, both physically and mentally, when he returns after a two-year absence from football. There's no way to know whether Olson's injuries were layoff-related or not, but it's worth considering. Linebacker is also more of an instinct-based position than quarterback, but if Te'o returns and can't tackle or is slow to react, he obviously won't have as much of an impact.

With all that said, I think Te'o might be the biggest pickup for Charlie Weis in his tenure at Notre Dame -- and yes, that includes some of the five-star offensive players he's picked up, such as Jimmy Clausen and Sam Young.

The Irish certainly haven't had a bad defense the past few years, but they also haven't had an impact defensive player who could take over the game and force offenses to adjust, a la Rey Maualuga or James Laurinaitis.

If -- and again, this is a big if -- Te'o returns to Notre Dame for the 2011 season and hasn't lost much in terms of skill, he could end up being that guy. And while I may be looking too far into the future, if the Irish can build their defense around Te'o while their young skill-position players on offense continue to improve ... look out.

It'll be interesting to see whether Te'o ends up back at Notre Dame after his mission and -- regardless of where he plays -- if he becomes the force everyone thinks he can be after missing out on two crucial years of development. Weis doesn't have a great track record in terms of developing highly touted recruits, but this is one guy who might not need much help.

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