Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o deserves the Heisman Trophy. The accolades doled out in college football are highly subjective, and equally compelling cases for any number of players, coaches and teams can be made. But on this matter, I firmly believe there is a clear cut right choice for the sport’s highest individual honor. That is Te’o.
Don’t take the above and anything that follows as disparaging of Texas A&M sensational freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel. The talking head, debate show culture has devolved discourse into all-or-nothing warfare wherein it’s not acceptable to simply disagree; one must eviscerate his opponent and completely negate every facet of his/her argument. The case for Te’o isn’t a case against Manziel.
Indeed, Manziel has had a stellar season. The explosive, dual threat play maker has been a vital cog in the Aggies’ impressive 10-2 SEC debut. Today, he surpassed a milestone that previous Heisman winner Cam Newton set, putting Manziel in some pretty elite company. His efforts were critical to A&M’s upset of Alabama, giving him that all-important “Heisman moment.”
Te’o's season was a Heisman moment. Notre Dame won its 12th and BCS championship appearance-sealing game of the season as it has throughout 2012: with defense. And no one player has been as important to the Fighting Irish as Te’o.
The senior linebacker has accrued plenty of statistics to validate his performance. On Saturday, he intercepted his seventh pass. Only Fresno State safety Philip Thomas has more. He surpassed 100 tackles against USC, far-and-away the most on the nation’s stingiest defense.
Yet, so much of what Te’o has contributed to a championship caliber defense transcends statistics. Te’o is the consummate game manager from his middle linebacker position. He patrols every inch of turf from each goal line, to each sideline. He sees blocking schemes, recognizes formations, works like a defensive coordinator from ground level.
Notre Dame is heading to the BCS championship because of its defense, and the defense is successful largely because of Te’o. It’s a simple equation.
Te’o has also been an inspirational leader. His teammates and the Notre Dame community rallied behind Te’o, showing up for him while he played in the memory of his late grandmother and girlfriend. Increased emphasis on cold, hard numbers throughout sports strip away some of the human element, which plays a profound role that cannot truly be measured.
Now might be too late to build enough support Te’o's candidacy. Though he’s been on the radar much of the season, plenty of prognasticators are declaring the race over and awarding the bronze statue to Manziel.
The internet has given us unprecedented access and insight behind the scenes of certain events. The Heisman vote is one such event. Last year, connectivity to and between Heisman voters made a direct impact on Robert Griffin III’s win. The groundswell for Griffin was unprecedented, but it also led to several inauthentic pushes to replicate its magic this season.
It seems many voters were interested in being first on starting a movement. Some were ready to call Geno Smith’s September insurmountable for other candidates, with over half the season remaining. Others urged Collin Klein to strike the pose in October. I’ve listened to a radio host with a ballot claim to have discovered Manziel, well after many in the blogosphere were raving about his potential in the wake of a shootout win over Louisiana Tech.
Last season’s historic vote began a wave of Heisman hipsters, but lost in the hysteria of Griffin a season ago was the substance of his season. He put up tremendous numbers, sure. But he also was the catalyst of an unpredictably great season. Likewise, Te’o has been the catalyst of an unprecedented season for the Fighting Irish, its first ending in the championship game of the BCS era.
Similarly compelling cases could be made for Manziel, Klein, even Notre Dame’s Week 13 opponent, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee. All deserve the Heisman. Manti Te’o just deserves the Heisman more.