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September 6, 2012
Manti Te’o acted like he hadn’t been there before because he hadn’t.
Sprinting off the field at Aviva Stadium on Saturday afternoon after picking off Navy quarterback Trey Miller, Te’o flung the ball over his head before jumping into a scrum of teammates. It’s the kind of celebration that could have drawn a 15-yard penalty. Perhaps the officials were lost trying to make sense of something that seemed statistically bizarre.
Despite having started 36 games entering the season, totaling 324 tackles and taking up two-plus pages in the media guide with his bio, Te’o had exactly zero career interceptions and fumble recoveries. He knocked out both against Navy, serving notice that his game may be close to completion on the college level.
“That was a focus on my mind in the off-season and in fall camp, just a mentality where I just wanted to create turnovers and do whatever it takes to get the ball in our offense’s hands,” Te’o said. “It felt pretty good.”
The two turnovers doubled the senior’s career total, having forced one fumble as a sophomore and another one as a junior despite racking up 261 tackles in that process.
Notre Dame’s inability to force turnovers has been consistent during Bob Diaco’s run as defensive coordinator as the staff has focused more on preventing the big play than making them. Notre Dame has forced 39 turnovers the past two seasons combined. The only Irish opponent to force fewer is Wake Forest.
But that might be changing after the Navy game when Notre Dame forced four turnovers, including Stephon Tuitt’s 77-yard fumble return for a touchdown. The three fumble recoveries represent half of last season’s total.
It’s hard to imagine the Irish not blowing by that mark this fall with Te’o adding to his statistical haul. Head coach Brian Kelly didn’t say he was surprised last weekend marked his linebacker’s first interception and first fumble recovery, but he said the defense had put Te’o in position to make those plays before.
“I think you're seeing a guy that’s going to make those plays now,” Kelly said. “We were doing some things in coverage and he helped the run with the No. 3 (receiver) vertically later in the game (against Navy), and did a great job. He's always been very good in pass coverage. And I think he just got his opportunity.
“Sometimes you're just not in the right place at the right time. We were very confident for him to be on the field in third down situations. We never take him off the field. Yeah, I just think he got his and he's going to get more.”
Kelly compared Te’o to Ray Lewis over the weekend in leadership. Notre Dame’s All-American may be closing in on the future NFL Hall of Famer in terms of college production too if he continues to add to Notre Dame’s turnovers gained.
“I think to become the player that I need to be and I want to be, that’s an all-around, dominant player, I needed to strengthen some other parts of my game,” Te’o said. “I think for me it was a growing process.”
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