News Column

How Will Manti Te'o Fit in San Diego?

April 28, 2013

Manti Te'o's adrenaline overtook his hearing when the phone call finally came, and he never did catch the name of the person who told the All-America linebacker he would start his post-Notre Dame football career in San Diego.

"All I remember is them asking me, 'How would you like to be a San Diego Charger?' " Te'o told Chargers.com Friday night after his wait ended six picks into Day 2 of the NFL Draft. "Then I talked to the owner and man, I'm just excited right now."

And just how excited will San Diego be the with second-rounder and 38th selection overall?

Kevin Acee, columnist for U-T San Diego, said his Twitter feed was running 7-3 or 8-2 blasting the pick, but noted his social media feedback tends not to mirror the actual fan base.

"For instance, we had somebody out last night at a draft party for season ticket holders,' Acee said. "And the overwhelming majority was extremely positive about the team picking D.J. Fluker (in Thursday night's first round), and that's how it was last year when they picked Melvin Ingram.

"You go then to Twitter or the comments at the end of our articles, and there were just people ripping up in both cases, both last year and this. So we're going to have to wait and see."

Te'o, who's expected to be in San Diego Saturday, becomes the highest-drafted Irish linebacker since 1993, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected Demetrius DuBose 34th overall, and he follows tight end Tyler Eifert in this draft, who went Thursday night to the Cincinnati Bengals in round 1 with the 21st pick.

The three-day player dispersal finishes up Saturday with rounds 4-7, with as many as five Irish players expected to come off the board, including center and Penn High graduate Braxston Cave. Round four kicks off at noon.

The youngest general manager in Chargers' history, 40-year-old and former Colts director of player personnel Tom Telesco, traded up seven spots to grab the 6-foot-2, 243-pound Te'o with the sixth pick of the second round, a spot that originally belonged to the Arizona Cardinals.

"We put a lot of work into this decision," Telesco told Chargers.com. "He's a player who fits what we want to do on defense. He's a natural football player, the most instinctual and natural linebacker in the draft, we thought. I think he'll fit excellent into our 3-4, how we're going to play our linebackers.

"We figured if we really wanted him. we were going to have to go get him, so that's what we did."

Te'o's selection started a run of five inside linebackers in the second round after just one, Alec Ogletree, came off the board in round No. 1 -- and three picks from the end of the round (30th to the Rams) at that.

"When I talked to him this morning, he actually cheered me up," Irish head coach Brian Kelly told NFL Network after seeing the Heisman Trophy runner-up slip out of round 1.

Te'o joins a team that went 7-9 last season and missed the playoffs for the third season in a row. The Chargers also have a new head coach in Mike McCoy. Te'o's position coach will be a former USC linebacker, Joe Barry.

"Being a Charger means a lot to me right now," said Te'o, who watched the draft in his hometown of Laie, Hawaii, with friends and family. "The coaches and the front office, it's a great organization, and I want to reward them for picking me. I'm going to do whatever it takes to help us win."

But first he is going to have to relive, at least for a while, the past 100 days of largely unflattering headlines that started first with the Lennay Kekua hoax, then a lackluster NFL combine. The loudest buzz, though, pointing to why Te'o became a second-rounder when he was largely projected to land in the first round was his underwhelming performance against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game.

"I think San Diego is probably one of the better environments he could have ended up, because it's a small big town or a big small town," Acee said, "as opposed to some of the other markets that he could be going to. But of course, there's going to be a lot of curiosity."

"He's got some good guys on the team, who are the leaders in Philip Rivers, Nick Hardwick, Eric Weddle. They'll shield him to a certain extent. But if he really is the guy who was that emotional leader and who all of us saw play, then he'll overcome this. The way he performs on the field and how he handles the scrutiny in the NFL, that will determine how San Diego fans respond to him."

Te'o becomes the 10th Notre Dame player to be drafted by the Chargers franchise, but the first since cornerback Willie Clark in 1994. San Diego isn't quite the closest NFL franchise to his home, it being just a little farther from Hawaii than San Francisco and Oakland, but the team has long held a special place in Te'o's heart because of former Charger linebacker standout Junior Seau.

Seau, like Te'o, was of Samoan descent. The 12-time Pro Bowler took his own life last year at age 43.

"I want to make him proud," Te'o said of Seau. "He was a dominant linebacker, and that's what I want to be. This team has a history of great linebackers, and I want to be a part of that tradition."

The Chargers open the season at home against Houston on Monday Night Football on Sept. 9. He'll cross paths with Eifert Dec. 1, when the Bengals visit San Diego on Dec. 1. The Chargers have a preseason game against the Bears in Chicago on Aug. 15.

By then, perhaps normalcy will be overtaking the drama that has stalked Te'o the past three months.

"This is a Chargers town," Acee said. "And the fan base here remembers this being one of the winningest regular-season teams, in the LaDainian Tomlinson Era, about a span of six years. Now they've gone three years without going to the playoffs.

"They've got a new general manager and a new coach. The fans are very impatient now and increasingly so. So if this guy can be a part of a resurgence, if he can come in and make some plays anywhere near the level he did the past couple of years he did at Notre Dame, they will absolutely fall in love with him."

Staff writer Eric Hansen:

ehansen@sbtinfo.com

574-235-6112

___

(c)2013 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.)

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Source: Copyright South Bend Tribune (IN) 2013


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