Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o answered a lot of questions about his ability to play in the NFL by returning for his senior season, according to ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.
Kiper said Te’o needed to prove that he could be a three-down linebacker and be able to cover receivers and tight ends.
After intercepting seven passes this season, Te’o has nearly eliminated all doubts about his abilities.
“He didn’t have as many sacks; he didn’t have as many tackles for loss this year as he had the previous two years, but he had seven picks,” Kiper said. “He didn’t have a pick going into this year for his career, yet he had seven this season. He had 42 more tackles than Zeke Motta who is No. 2 on the tackle chart at Notre Dame.”
Te’o led Notre Dame with 103 tackles and had 5 ½ tackles for loss this season. Last season, the 6-foot-2, 255-pounder had 128 tackles with 13 ½ for loss, and in 2010, he had 133 tackles with 9 ½ for loss.
Kiper said the last question Te’o will need to answer is about his speed.
“How his 40 time ends up being, there are people have even said to me, what is his 40 time going to be? How fast will he prove out to be?” Kiper said. “He dropped weight this year. We had him on Saturday on ESPN Radio, he dropped roughly about 15 pounds going into the year to be a little quicker, more maneuverable in coverage. That helped him.”
Te’o, who finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting to Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, set a record by collecting seven national postseason awards this season.
Te’o won the Maxwell Award (top player), Walter Camp player of the year, Bronko Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player), Bednarik Award (top defensive player), Lott IMPACT Trophy (top defensive player), Lombardi Award (top lineman/linebacker) and Butkus Award (top linebacker).
Te’o received a first-round grade for the NFL draft last season, but he likely would have gone in the middle of the opening round.
Kiper, who lists Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones as No. 1 followed by Te’o on his big board, said the Irish linebacker could go in the top five in the upcoming draft.
“Te’o normally if the draft was super strong at the top would be a pick between seven and 12, but this year, there is not that strength at the top,” Kiper said. “You don’t have a quarterback. You don’t have a running back. You don’t have a cornerback. You don’t have a safety. That’s why this has allowed Te’o, by going back to Notre Dame and having that great year for the No. 1 team in the country right now, playing for the national title, to be No. 2 on the big board. Somebody’s got to be up there.
“He’s deserving in this draft of being there, normally as I said he would be seven to 12. But this year, he could be one of the top three to five picks overall.”