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College Football Insider

Te'o's leadership, versatility, production make him nation's top defender

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Manti Te'o might not be able to deliver the wrath for 60 minutes quite like Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones.

Take Jones' thunderous 13-tackle, three-sack, two-forced-fumble performance against Florida in late October. It was a sinister performance. There's no denying Jones' greatness.

But Te'o's greatness was just a little more consistent, a little more versatile, and a little more deep-rooted in college football folklore. That's why Te'o, a Heisman finalist, is CBSSports.com's top defensive player of the year.

This season, Te'o commanded huddles, made defensive calls, covered tight ends downfield, stuffed running backs at the line, blitzed hard through gaps, helped stop two Pac-12 heavyweights at the goal line late in games, became the face of a college football staple from a sometimes thankless inside linebacker position, had six games of at least 10 tackles, gave a stale Notre Dame culture a new personality, and picked off six different quarterbacks.

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Try topping that in 12 games.

When people think about Notre Dame's undefeated season, they think of Te'o. Some of that is media-driven because of his likability and his well-documented personal tragedies colliding with Notre Dame's first real title run in decades.

Notre Dame's defense went from decent to elite with Te'o at the center of things.

Despite 103 tackles, Te'o probably doesn't sniff the Heisman without seven interceptions. The turnovers set him apart.

You don't merely stumble into seven interceptions. Maybe that pick of young Southern California quarterback Max Wittek two weeks ago was right to him, but Te'o needed to use his athleticism and instincts to get seven picks -- more than all but three cornerbacks in the country.

Te'o doesn't disappear on the road. He evenly distributes, with 52 tackles at Notre Dame Stadium and 51 at home. He averages 10 tackles a game against ranked teams.

He has been durable. If Jones didn't miss two games, maybe he could have closed the gap on Te'o. But it's too late now.

Te'o's signature game came against arguably the Irish's toughest opponent, with 11 tackles, a sack and a diving interception against Oklahoma. Te'o needed that game to strengthen his Heisman case. In a few days, he'll be heading to New York.

Oklahoma had 15 yards rushing that night. Stopping the run, especially in the red zone, is a Notre Dame staple, and Te'o seems to always be around the ball.

Who knows if Te'o could have done more this season had he rushed the passer more? He was so good in coverage that defensive coordinator Bob Diaco couldn't make him one-dimensional.

Not to be undersold: Te'o helped change the culture at a college football program least adept to change. He made the Irish a little less elitist and a little more human.

Notre Dame became likable, largely because of a linebacker, all while the school stayed true to its faith-based, academic roots.

"He really challenges your ability to trot out the old things about Notre Dame -- arrogant or haughty or whatever -- because he's none of that," Swarbrick said. "It's a remarkable intersection between guy and moment ... In so many ways, he's helped reinforce the notion that, 'No, this is a different model (at Notre Dame).'"

Notre Dame played to Te'o's personality. The passion, the chest pumps, the pointing to the stands -- none of it seems hollow or clichéd with Te'o.

A team with a mediocre passing game that produced six games of 21 points or fewer kept winning because they believe the defense is allergic to touchdowns. You can drive on us, but you won't get more than a field goal.

Nobody embodied that belief more than Te'o. Everything about Notre Dame feels comfortable playing in tight games.

There's no doubt who's the catalyst for that confidence.


Jeremy Fowler is a national college football insider with CBSSports.com. Fowler joined CBS in 2012 after covering the Minnesota Vikings for the St. Paul Pioneer Press for two seasons and covering the Florida Gators for the Orlando Sentinel for two years. Fowler is also a contributor to the CBS Sports Network.
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