When the Bolts selected Manti Te’o with the 36th overall pick in the second round of last year’s draft, the Notre Dame linebacker came into the league with a dark cloud hovering above his head. Widely considered a top-5 draft prospect heading into his last season with the Irish, strange off-the-field happenings took place during that season that undermined his draft stock. Te’o turned out to be a victim of a relatively new social media scam called “catfishing”. This occurs when a scammer assumes a persona, creates an entire false identity and then uses it to swindle unsuspecting victims. Manti believed he had met a special young lady online in 2009 and, in turn, fostered a relationship with her though internet posts, texting and phone conversations. In September 2012, Te’o was informed that this “girlfriend” had passed away suddenly. He then used this “tragedy” as fuel during his final collegiate campaign. When the truth of the scam became public, many began to question whether Te’o was in on the scam all along. Some thought he had used the fake death as a way of garnering nationwide sympathy and support in his push for Heisman Trophy votes. (For a detailed timeline of all of these events, follow this link: http://abcnews.go.com/US/timeline-manti-teo-girlfriend-hoax-story/story?id=18268647) Te’o has continually denied any involvement in the bizarre tale, but there are plenty of people out there who still hold the whole debacle against him. Te’o says that he uses that distrust as motivation to excel in the NFL. As far as I’m concerned, I feel bad for the guy and want to see him succeed on the field…period! He’s a San Diego Charger now and that means he’s one of us.
When asked about his impressions of Manti after drafting him, Chargers General Manager Tom Telesco replied, “We did a lot of work on Te’o and I’ve seen him for a number of years. He loves football. He’s passionate about it. He loves to practice. He loves to play.” It was clear that the organization was excited to be adding Te’o to the mix. The preseason, unfortunately, was unkind to Te’o. He suffered a foot injury just a few plays into the first game, sidelining him for the rest of preseason. No games and, more importantly, no practices. There is a lot to learn as a rookie linebacker and Manti did his homework mentally, but nothing prepares a player better than being out on the practice field going through the motions- physically- with his teammates. This would set his development back significantly. Once the foot healed and Te’o was cleared to play, expectations were sky-high in San Diego. Fans expected to see him jump in and make an immediate impact. That didn’t happen. Te’o was routinely out of position, unable to disengage from blockers and looked lost in pass coverage. The lack of preseason work had taken its toll. Four or five weeks into the regular season, it was commonplace to read tweets from disgruntled fans proclaiming Te’o a “bust” and a wasted draft pick. As a coach myself, I know how important training camp is in any sport- but especially football. I held out hope that Te’o could, and would, pull it together. Secretly, however, I began to wonder if the adversity he was facing was simply going to be too much for him to overcome. Time would tell.
During the final four weeks of the regular season, throughout the Bolts’ improbable playoff push, I began to notice Manti disengaging from blockers much better. In some cases, he would put a little side-step on the incoming blocker allowing himself the ability to slide right past the block entirely. He was attacking more now and seemed in better position more of the time. Sure, there are still plays when it is obvious that he’s still a rookie out there getting his feet under him. In Sunday’s playoff win against the Bengals, however, I saw Te’o taking on 322 pound lead blocker Domata Peko with no fear! I witnessed him take the big hit from Peko, slide underneath and grab the ankle of BenJarvis Green-Ellis. Add a tackle-assist to his game log. More importantly, add a ton of respect from an excited Chargers fan base…
The future is never certain and things can change in a heartbeat, but right now- I am very excited to watch Manti Te’o continue to grow and mature into the All-Pro linebacker that Tom Telesco envisioned him to be last April!