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Hutton: Manti’s impact on Irish is Heisman-worthy

FILE - In this Oct. 27 2012 file phoNotre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o (5) celebrates with teammate StephTuitt (7) after

FILE - In this Oct. 27, 2012, file photo, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o (5) celebrates with teammate Stephon Tuitt (7) after an interception against Oklahoma in the fourth quarter of an NCAA college football game in Norman, Okla. Te'o is a finalist for the Heisman Trophy. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)

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Updated: January 9, 2013 6:11AM



New York, Times Square, a formal event and the Heisman Trophy stage? That’s where Manti Te’o will be Saturday evening, wearing a suit, awaiting word on whether he’ll be the first defensive player since Charles Woodson of Michigan to win the most prestigious award in college football.

It’s a long, long way figuratively and literally from where Te’o and the whole Notre Dame team was in the last week of October 2011.

That was the week of Twitter-gate, the infamous moment when Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, either purposely or not, called out his team in a brief post-practice session. The Irish had been sausaged by USC the previous Saturday and the state of the team was not good.

It was a game filled with turnovers, poor quarterback play and the general sense that Notre Dame just wasn’t ready to compete with elite teams.

Kelly’s language about the Irish left him wide open for criticism.

Perhaps in a moment of exasperation after a bad practice or perhaps because it was calculated, Kelly called out the Charlie Weis players when he said: “You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We’ve had one class of recruiting, kids that I’ve had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it’s a process. It can’t happen overnight. They’re getting there. They’re making good progress.”

Whatever the intent was, the move backfired. A social media storm ensued with various players, some current and others who had played for Weis, going full-barrel after Kelly.

None carried more weight than these five words in the form of a tweet from Te’o: “Playin for my bros and that’s it!!!!” Kelly, in the wake of the backlash, was forced to call a team meeting before the Irish played Navy to sew the fissure back together. Nothing, however, could change the course of a disappointing season that ended with a predictable loss to Florida State in the Gator Bowl.

There was no real reason to expect that this year would any different with the departure of one of the Irish’s most talented defensive linemen in Aaron Lynch, the graduation of wide receiver Michael Floyd and the offseason arrest of Tommy Rees. This was a team with a solid front seven, a seasoned offensive line, a very suspect secondary along with a bunch of unproven skill players. The season had 8-5 written all over it.

It was impossible to dream up what happened next. You don’t need me to explain. You know already. Undefeated, 12-0 and playing for their first national championship since winning the 1989 Fiesta Bowl. Nobody believed they had a chance then, some people don’t even believe what has happened now.

That gets me to this: Who deserves the trophy more, Te’o or Johnny Manziel ?

In framing the Heisman debate, I resisted over-analyzing the statistics. I tried to shut out all the noise about how Te’o exemplified the ideal for a what a college athlete should be — an exemplary, high character student and the raw data on the field (seven interceptions) to back it up. I threw out the notion that Manziel was only a freshman or that, from an offensive perspective, Manziel was demonstrably better (68.3 percent completion ratio, 43 touchdowns and a quarterback rating of 155.9) than any other quarterback in the country.

I voted for Te’o because this amazing season was impossible for the Irish without him. This is Te’o’s team, not Kelly’s team or anyone else’s team. Without Te’o, Notre Dame isn’t playing for a title. The Irish aren’t shimmering in the national spotlight. They aren’t the best defense in the country, yielding just 10.3 points per game.

And there aren’t little kids in Hawaii who are dreaming of being the next great college linebacker at Notre Dame.

Te’o could’ve walked after what was, at best, a strained season with Kelly. He could be a rookie in the NFL, with a multimillion dollar contract, and a nice car in an oversized garage.

He returned because he wanted to be at Notre Dame for senior day, no matter how the season went and no matter who the coach was.

It has all turned out perfectly for Te’o and Notre Dame so far, way better than anyone could’ve dreamed last year. Te’o may not have the votes — and that’s OK — but his story this year is without a doubt one of the best that college football has witnessed in a long, long time.



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