Annual Six-Star Returnee

Junior linebacker Manti Te'o's announced return for the 2012 season is the second example of a welcomed change of the football culture in South Bend.

Notre Dame secured its most important 2012 commitment Sunday night when junior linebacker and first team All-America selection Manti Te'o announced he would return for his senior season. Te'o made the announcement at the Lott IMPACT Trophy banquet in Newport Beach, Calif.

In January 2011, Irish head coach Brian Kelly noted the return of then-junior and reigning team MVP Michael Floyd as a "six-star" recruit (poking fun at the five-star system employed by most recruiting services). Te'o falls into that category as well as he'll rank as one of the two best returning inside ‘backers in football and the team's definitive best defensive player next fall.

Kelly offered last week that he encouraged both Te'o and second team All-America tight end Tyler Eifert to submit their names to the NFL for evaluation. (It's doubtful those evaluations have be completed.)

"I think it's important that both of them get evaluated so they see where they stand," Kelly said last week. "But, as far as it goes toward a decision, I think that's only part of it. I don't want to speak for either one of those guys, but I think we all know why Manti is here. If Manti just wanted to go pro, he'd be somewhere else. He loves Notre Dame; he loves what it's about. The same thing with Tyler."

Te'o's return affords defensive coordinator Bob Diaco the luxury of nine returnees among the 11 regular front seven competitors from the 2011 squad (Seniors Ethan Johnson and Darius Fleming will exhaust their eligibility with the Champs Sports Bowl).

Now a front wall with Kapron Lewis-Moore and Sean Cwynar (both prospective 5th-year seniors for 2012), and Aaron Lynch, Stephon Tuitt, and Louis Nix will have an All-America run stuffer behind them. Late-year contributor Chase Hounshell and current scout team freshman Tony Springmann will be part of the mix as well.

Now Carlo Calabrese and Dan Fox can continue to split time at the Will ‘backer spot – the best scenario for the team – while playing next to and benefiting from a future first round pick.

Now relative veteran Prince Shembo can settle in at an outside ‘backer spot. So too can youngsters Ishaq Williams, Danny Spond, and hybrid linebacker/end/tackle Troy Niklas, to whom Te'o served as a mentor this season.

Te'o's return furthers Kelly's assertion that prospective student-athletes will come to Notre Dame to win college football games first; then turn their attention to the NFL.

Welcomed Return of Program Standards

Notre Dame's football program under Kelly is unlikely to host another nauseating press conference to celebrate underclassmen bolting for NFL riches as it did for Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate at the conclusion of the Charlie Weis era.

Some NFL prospects owe it to themselves and their families to enter the draft, earn a first or all-important second contract, then return to earn a degree in the future. But Notre Dame can't survive as a stepping stone to the NFL. It tried prior to Kelly's arrival and failed in spectacular fashion.

Work remains for Te'o in South Bend. As one of the five best defenders on the 2009 team as a true freshmen, Te'o's first-year Irish finished just 6-6. They improved to 8-5 in his second season and look to earn a ninth in his third.

His return for a fourth allows for further ascent next fall, as Notre Dame will boast one of the nation's best front seven groups: bigger, stronger, faster, and deeper, with a nearly ideal mix of experience through its ranks.

Te'o made a choice similar to Floyd's, whose return ensured Legendary Status in program lore.

2012 captaincy looms for Te'o. His best football should, too.


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