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Manti Te'o growing as a player, leader

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- After a season in which Manti Te'o recorded more tackles than any Notre Dame player in 27 years, Bob Diaco made a video of all the plays his star linebacker could have done better on in 2010.

"It was a pretty big impact on him," the defensive coordinator said, "and from that moment he's made a concerted effort to not only do everything that we're working on, but he actually takes a lot of extra time and focuses on his liabilities."

Whatever the liabilities that come with a 133-tackle campaign may be -- Diaco mentioned angling and changing speeds as two of them -- there has been less critiquing of Te'o's play through five games this season and more praise for the heart of a Fighting Irish defense that finds itself 26th in the nation in scoring and 31st in overall defense.

Through five games, Te'o's 49 tackles are 20 more than the next closest Notre Dame player. His 29 solo tackles are 10 more. And he leads the team in tackles for loss (six) and sacks (four).

He had eight tackles, three tackles for loss and two sacks Saturday at Purdue, prompting head coach Brian Kelly to say it may have just been Te'o's best game of the season.

"I don't really know, I thought it was an average game," Te'o said. "I'm always looking to get better. I thought it was an OK game that I had. It was definitely refreshing to get a sack and some tackles, but I'm more happy that we won and I'm more happy that I didn't miss so many tackles, that's what I'm happy about.

"So in that case, I say yeah, I had a pretty good game. But other than that I thought it was average, still trying to feel my way through. Not necessarily feel my way through, but just be a game-changer."

Missing tackles, he said, was the biggest thing he tried to eliminate entering this season. Whereas last year Te'o said he would try to knock out any ball carrier within eyesight, this year he has learned to take a better approach in the open field.

"I think it starts with his understanding of the game and how much film he watches and how much he anticipates what offenses are gonna do now," fifth-year safety and captain Harrison Smith said. "There was some of that last year, but I think he's gotten even a better feel for it and putting in more time. I mean, he's always had the instincts and the physical ability at linebacker. That's never anything he's been lacking. So I think his extra time off the field watching the game and studying the game has really shown up."

Te'o ranks 23rd in the nation in total tackles (19th among linebackers) and he is 25th in solo tackles (15th among linebackers). Despite his desire to be a game-changer, he said he has not accepted his status as a nationally elite linebacker yet because he tries not to listen to anyone outside of his family or team.

He has had to come out of his shell more in the past two years as a leader of Notre Dame's defense, but it is a process he has gradually adapted to.

"I'm learning when to speak, when not to speak; when to act, when not to act," Te'o said. "And I think that's what a good leader does. He's not always hounding on his teammates, he's not always over there barking at his teammates. He finds the right times to chime in and he chooses the right times not to chime in, so now I'm feeling my way through and I'm getting better with it."

Kelly has seen that growth both on and off the field, and he wasted no time in pointing to the driving factor behind every step Te'o has taken.

"Here's a young man with an immense amount of pride, a pride in his own culture, his own beliefs and faith, his own family," Kelly said. "And he carries that same pride to what he does on the football field. So when people talk about the complete package, it's that he carries that same pride with him and everything that he does. And that's what he brings to our football program. And that's why there's never a day that he's not looking to be better. And I think it's the pride that drives that."