Although the All-American linebacker Manti Te’o had 10 tackles Monday night against the Alabama Crimson Tide, he was seen the world’s eyes as a “no show”, mostly because of the high expectations coming out of his Heisman Trophy-worthy season. Te’o finished his legendary career in South Bend with 427 total tackles (34 for a loss), two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries, 8 and a half sacks and seven interceptions (which all came this season). After leading the Irish to three bowl games and a National Championship Game appearance (1-2 in those games), the question is not is Manti Te’o an all-time Notre Dame legend; but where does he rank among the defensive greats that have ever wore the famous golden helmets?
Manti Te’o finished second in the Heisman race to Texas A&M quarterback and human highlight reel, Johnny Manziel. Te’o won eight awards this season including the player of the year awards; the Maxwell Award and the Walter Camp Award. Te’o was also a unanimous selection to the First Team All-America Team. He clearly has the credentials, but does he measure up to the likes of Leon Hart, Johnny Lujack and Bob Golic?
Hart and Lujack each won the Heisman Trophy (Lujack in 1947, Hart in 1949), but Hart did something no other player had done until current Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s magical season in 2010 at Auburn University. Hart and Newton won the Heisman Trophy, National Championship and were selected as the number one overall pick in their respective drafts all in a one-year span. Johnny Lujack not won a Heisman as well as a quarterback; he played defensive back for the Irish as well. Lujack was a two-time All-American and help lead the Irish to three National Championships in 1943, 1946 and 1947 (Lujack spent time fighting in World War II, then came back to South Bend).
Although Lujack, Hart, Golic, fan favorite Chris Zorich and the rest of the very long list of Notre Dame defensive players is filled with tremendous talent throughout the Irish’s 125 year history; the impact Manti Te’o has had on the Notre Dame program and community is second to none. Notre Dame would not have finished this past regular season undefeated without the heart and soul of not only the defense, but of the entire university. The school rallied around Te’o after the tragic deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend this past September. Te’o responded with arguably the best season in Notre Dame history by a defensive player.
Adding in the extremely lengthy list of offensive talent that has ran out of the tunnel and into Notre Dame Stadium would probably be a different subject for a different day. But saying Manti Te’o is the greatest defensive player to ever play for Notre Dame is a safe bet for today.