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SOUTH BEND – History shows that a linebacker can't win the Heisman Trophy.
History shows that no defensive player can win college football's most prestigious award. Heck, anymore, recent history indicates that if you are not a quarterback then you don't have a legitimate chance at the honor at all.
But Bob Diaco studied sociology at Iowa, not history, so he just knows what he knows about Notre Dame senior linebacker Manti Te'o, and the Fighting Irish defensive coordinator isn't interested in studying the past.
“I would say that Manti is the finest football player in America,” Diaco said. “All positions, and all teams, in college, and he's the best football player that I've personally coached.”
So if Te'o is indeed the “finest football player in America,” can he win college football's most coveted trophy? A quick glance at the list of winners shows that the answer is an emphatic no. But 2012 is a new year and times, they are a changing.
Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson was recognized in 1997, but he had the caveat that he did play some offense, as well as was an electric punt returner. So the past didn't come into play for Woodson, so it is possible - with a number of factors falling into place – that Te'o could pull this unbelievable accomplishment off.
That is, with the following benefits:
Te'o plays for the Fighting Irish and the other Heisman candidates don't. That certainly helps his cause. Rick Reilly may not feel that Notre Dame is still relevant, but Sports Illustrated (Te'o is on this week's cover), as well as a number of Heisman voters (i.e. old guys) still do. If Te'o is a dominant linebacker at Auburn, he has no chance. But flying all over the field while wearing the shiniest helmet this side of Eugene, Oregon on national TV each week helps his case. As does the hint of nostalgia in those voters' hearts.
Notre Dame has climbed to 4-0 and a big reason – OK, the only reason – is the Irish defense. Te'o leads a unit that has Notre Dame back inside the Top 10 for the first time (Nov. 2006) since Saddam Hussein was still alive. The Notre Dame victories need to continue to pile up if Te'o can remain in the Heisman conversation. Being the best defensive player on a 9-3 squad won't cut it.
Te'o has excelled all season (38 tackles, three interceptions, two fumble recoveries), but he's registered his most memorable plays in prime time outings against Michigan State (12 tackles, one fumble recovery) and Michigan (two interceptions). It's nice that he racks up statistics each week, but in order to remain a legitimate Heisman candidate, he'll need fantastic games at Oklahoma (Oct. 27) and USC (Nov. 24). Getting a sack against Wake Forest won't move the meter.
With the aforementioned needed victories come rewards. If Notre Dame can win enough to gain an invite to a BCS game, plus Te'o makes spectacular – solid won't do any good – plays, then he has a very good shot at being at least invited to New York for the ceremony. But Te'o won't need to make arrangements to ship the trophy if the Irish are playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
A quarterback has won the Heisman in 10 of the past 11 seasons, so odds favor a nationally prominent signal caller on a top team. Yes, Geno Smith (West Virginia), A.J. McCarron (Alabama), and E.J. Manuel (Florida State) each have inherent advantages, while pre-season favorite Matt Barkley (USC) has helped Te'o's chances by already losing and throwing five picks in the process. Te'o needs those quarterbacks to follow Barkley's lead by losing and playing poorly while doing so – oh, and doing that on national TV would also help.
“Manti is bright, studies the game, and driven,” Diaco said. “He's a unique blend of being able to be kind and good and courteous and warm and friendly when he's not inside the stripe. And when he's in there, he's an absolute warrior.”
Te'o may be a “warrior,” but when it comes to the ultimate college football honor, can he be a winner?