“He's the finest football player in America and the best player I've ever coached,” Diaco said.
Although Te'o has produced some of the most eye-popping statistics ever seen in the program's storied history, it is difficult to quantify his impact with numbers alone. After the tragic passing of his girlfriend and grandmother hours apart in mid-September, the Notre Dame faithful likely would have excused Te'o if he returned to his native Hawaii to mourn their loss. Instead, Te'o stayed with the team and led Notre Dame to wins in consecutive weeks over Michigan and Michigan State.
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In a nationally televised primetime game vs. the Wolverines, Notre Dame fans paid tribute to Te'o's girlfriend Lennay Kekua and his grandmother Annette Santiago with a “Wear A Lei for Manti,” campaign. Te'o responded with two interceptions that led to scores in the Irish 13-6 win. On Senior Day, a 38-0 win over Wake Forest, throngs of students again wore the leis in Te'o's final game at Notre Dame Stadium.
Te'o's ubiquitous presence on the field and his leadership in the locker room could explain his popularity. Before a highly anticipated matchup at Oklahoma in late-October, Te'o asked coach Brian Kelly if he could speak with Everett Golson to instill confidence in the young quarterback. It may have helped, as Golson connected with WR Chris Brown on a 50-yard post pattern on Notre Dame's go-ahead touchdown drive.
The senior middle linebacker has already become just the second player in school history to record at least 100 tackles in three separate seasons. Te'o's seven interceptions in 2012 are also the most by an FBS linebacker since 2001. Diaco says Te'o tracks ball carriers like a 210-pound linebacker, but has the knock-back hitting ability of a 250-pound defender.
Though Te'o placed second in Heisman Trophy balloting to Johnny Manziel, he still became the first player in college football history to win the Lott Trophy, Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award, Lombardi Award, Bednarik Award, Maxwell Award and Walter Camp Player of the Year in the same year.
If Te'o leads Notre Dame to a win over Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game he might be considered the best player in school history.
Here's how he compares with other Notre Dame legends.
• QBs Joe Montana, Johnny Lujack, Paul Hornung and Tony Rice -- Montana, who earned legendary status for his composure under pressure, led Notre Dame to a national championship in 1977. In the 1979 Cotton Bowl, Montana's final college game, he spearheaded a 35-34 comeback win over Houston despite suffering from flu-induced hypothermia. Lujack, the 1947 Heisman Trophy winner, is known as one of the best T-formation quarterbacks in college football history. Hornung, the recipient of the 1956 Heisman Trophy, still remains the only player to win the award on a losing team. Rice led Notre Dame to the national championship in 1988.
• The Four Horsemen: HBs Jim Crowley and Don Miller, QB Harry Stuhldreher, FB Elmer Layden -- Under coach Knute Rockne, the backfield led Notre Dame to the 1924 National Championship. All four played on both offense and defense. In three seasons, the quartet lost just two games.
• WRs Raghib Ismail and Tim Brown -- Ismail, the electrifying returner, nearly led Notre Dame to a win over No. 1 Colorado in the 1991 Orange Bowl but had a late punt return for a touchdown nullified by a controversial clipping penalty. Brown, the last Heisman winner at Notre Dame, excelled as a receiver, runner and returner in his collegiate career. Lou Holtz has described Brown as the most intelligent player he's ever coached.
• DL Ross Browner -- The intimidating defensive end used a patented rip move to carve out an illustrious career. Browner won two national championships while at Notre Dame (1973 and 1977) and was a two-time unanimous All-American. He was also the only defensive player in the 1970s to win the Maxwell Award, given annually to the nation's top player.
For more up-to-the-minute news and analysis on Notre Dame football, follow Evan Hilbert and Matt Rybaltowski @CBSBigEast.