ATLANTIC CITY — Former University of Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o doesn’t care if he’s a first-round draft pick just as long as he gets the opportunity to play in the National Football League.
“To be honest, I really don’t know when I’ll be drafted,” Te’o said Friday during the Maxwell Football Club’s annual news conference at Harrah’s Atlantic City. “Right now, I’m just hoping I get drafted. I’m working hard, preparing myself the best I can and hoping for the best. I’m just hoping one of the 32 (NFL) teams will give me a home.”
Just a few months ago, Te’o was a sure-fire top-five pick. He enjoyed an outstanding season for the Fighting Irish, which resulted in him becoming the first player in the 76-year history of the Maxwell Football Club to win both the Maxwell (Collegiate Player of the Year) and Chuck Bednarik (Collegiate Defensive Player of the Year) awards in the same year.
Then came a poor performance in Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the national championship game, followed by a national scandal in which Te’o admitted that the person he called his late girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed. Te’o was the victim of a hoax perpetrated by an acquaintance.
The fallout continued at the annual NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis last month, where reporters took pictures of an empty podium and Tweeted that they were interviewing Te’o’s girlfriend. Te’o didn’t help himself by running the 40-yard dash in 4.82 seconds — at least two-tenths of a second slower than expected — and weighed 241 pounds after being listed at 255 in Notre Dame’s media guide.
“As a football player, I always looked at the combine as a stepping stone to the next level,” Te’o said. “When I finally got there, there was a lot of pressure and a lot of excitement. But it was still a positive experience for me. I was asked a lot of questions (by NFL teams) there and I answered them all honestly. I was disappointed in my 40 time, but I’m hoping to do better when I run during my Pro Day workout (on March 26).”
After the Maxwell Awards events this weekend, Te’o plans to return to the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., to train. In addition to his weight training and speed drills, he’s also been working with former Philadelphia Eagles linebacker and former University of North Carolina head coach John Bunting on making the jump to the NFL.
Former Eagles quarterback and ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, the president of the Maxwell Football Club, said that he has no doubt Te’o will be a productive NFL player.
“I looked at the tape and the guy can play football,” Jaworski said. “You can gauge speed a number of different ways. (Former Eagles wide receiver) Mike Quick wasn’t very fast. I think he was timed in 4.5 or 4.6 in the 40. But when the ball was in the air, he ran a 4.3.
“You can look at how fast a player is, how he does in the broad jump and the shuttle, but those things are just a small part of the evaluation process, a part of the mosaic that you put together. You have to look at the full body of work. At the end of the day, it comes down to whether a guy can play football and this guy can flat-out play. He’s a first-round draft pick, no doubt about it.”
Some things are harder to measure.
When it comes time to evaluating prospects, NFL teams also examine a player’s character, work ethic and how they respond to adversity.
As painful as the last few months have been for Te’o, he said feels as if the entire experience has made him stronger in ways that cannot be measured by bench presses.
That’s the quality that could make him an impact player.
“I’ve learned that there are things you can and can’t control and there’s no sense worrying about the things you can’t control,” Te’o said. “My focus now is on making myself the best player and the best person I can be. Everyone is going to get hit with adversity in their life. How you respond to that adversity is the true measure of you as a man.”
This weekend’s honorees also included Penn State coach Bill O’Brien, who was named the Maxwell Club’s Outstanding College Football Coach.
O’Brien was one of the early contenders for the Eagles’ head-coaching job before he withdrew from consideration. The Eagles eventually hired Chip Kelly to replace Andy Reid.
“When you’re in the coaching profession, the NFL is considered the pinnacle,” O’Brien said Friday. “You always have to listen (when NFL teams are interested), but at the end of they day, I had to do what I felt was right and be there for Penn State.”
The Nittany Lions will soon have three local players. Glenn Carson (Southern Regional High School) was one of their top players last season, and Oakcrest High School senior linebacker Brandon Bell signed a national letter of intent to attend Penn State in the fall. O’Brien visited Oakcrest and Bell’s home in Mays Landing during the recruiting process.
“Brandon’s just a fast, athletic, tough kid who comes from a great family,” O’Brien said. “It was a very enjoyable recruiting process with him. I can’t wait to get him to our campus for summer drills in June.”
Carson, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound starting middle linebacker, finished the 2012 season with 84 tackles and one sack in 12 games. He will enter his senior season in 2013 as a highly regarded NFL prospect.
Austin Johnson, a St. Augustine Prep graduate, will be a sophomore this year for the Nittany Lions after redshirting his freshman year.
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