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March 22, 2012

ND's Te'o returns to finish what he started

There may be a moment or two along the way, perhaps when he's dreaming of a beautiful, windswept day on the Hawaiian Islands, that Manti Te'o wonders what life might be like had he chosen a different path.

But the one he picked for himself a little more than three months ago - to return for his senior season at Notre Dame and earn his undergraduate degree as a design major in the College of Arts and Letters - is a comfortable stroll uncluttered by second guesses or regrets.

"Moments like these where I'm with my guys," said Te'o, when asked to reiterate why he chose to add to his 324 career tackles instead of taking his skills to the NFL.

"You can't beat this. Being here at Notre Dame, knowing that I'm going to graduate, knowing that I'm going to go on the senior walk, just knowing that I made the right decision for me.

"Everybody has their own beliefs and I believed that this is why I came here - to graduate, to build relationships and to make my family proud. I think I've done that."

Te'o shared a similar sentiment more than three months ago when he announced his decision to return for his fourth and final year of eligibility.

"Ultimately, I really want to experience my senior year at Notre Dame," said Te'o on Dec. 11. "The happiest moments so far in my life have come when I am spending time with people I love. I wanted to spend another year with my teammates and the coaches on our team. I don't think any sum of money can replace the memories I can create my senior year.

"Graduating from Notre Dame is really important to me. Many people encouraged me to go to the NFL because I could always earn my diploma later in life. If I did that, though, I would not have the chance for the same experiences that are ahead of me in my senior year, and I would not have finished at Notre Dame with the guys I started with and care so much about. When I weighed all the factors that went into the decision, it just felt right to stay at Notre Dame."

One more spring on the LaBar Practice Complex fields; one more shot at taking the Irish to a much-coveted BCS game. Twenty-two victories in three seasons were not enough to satisfy Te'o.

"I'm just going to try to maximize everything I've got and maximize my potential so that when I leave here, I can honestly say I gave it my all," said Te'o, whose draft projection ranged as high as the first round at one point.

"I can always get in better shape. I can always get stronger and faster. But I feel like I'm in the best shape so far."

True to his word, Te'o has an eye out for the younger players in the program, making sure they're adjusting and adapting, even some players on the offensive side of the football.

"Everything is a learning process," Te'o said. "It takes time, and I'm just making sure the younger guys understand how we run things.

"Guys like (freshman quarterback) Gunner (Kiel) and all the guys who came early…Gunner looks like he's picking it up well. It's always a confidence issue when you come to a college and people are bigger, faster, stronger. But at the end of the day, it's still football and if they understand that, it will be fine."

Te'o is not one to regret heartfelt decisions or look back and doubt his decision-making process. Besides, on a beautiful spring day in South Bend, as Wednesday, the first day of spring practice was, there didn't seem a whole lot for Te'o to regret.

"Just being back out there with the guys and just playing football again," said a wistful Te'o. "We haven't played since December, so it's always nice to be out on the football field and getting after it.

"I can improve upon everything. I can improve as a leader, a football player, in every facet of my game."

For Te'o, it all seems to add up, and fit just right.

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