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Introduction and those that just missed the cut…
#1 – Manti Te'oHead coach Brian Kelly noted the following of the program's defense entering 2012:
"It's a blend of some young guys that know the system and then some veterans. But by and large, we've got a lot of young guys still playing for us…first year starters from last year….there are a lot of young guys that are still emerging.
"And then we've got some veteran leadership in the back end with (Jamoris) Slaughter and Zeke (Motta); Manti Te'o obviously can control our front seven. So it's really a blend of some young players and some veterans that make it exciting from a defensive standpoint. They know the system, they know the structure, and they know how Coach (Bob) Diaco is going to call it. There's a lot of familiarity with our defense that we can go out now and really continue to develop."
And it's all expected to work, to be the team's rock, strength, and calling card, because a former signing day surprise decided to return and play with his teammates for another season.
Without Manti Te'o, none of the above works, at least not at a BCS-bowl contending level. The headliner on our list of 10 Indispensable Irish for 2012 was set in stone before I typed the first words or began to move players up, down, on, and off the list. c He's the voice of the huddle, the practice field, and the locker room. He's the player with the highest upside, a history of production, and will to compete.
I can't prove a negative, in other words, if he's in good health, this is a non-issue, but Manti Te'o's absence would cripple the defense next fall, putting them at a major disadvantage vs. nearly every team on the schedule, including assumed "wins" vs. Purdue, Pittsburgh, Boston College, and Wake Forest, etc.
Redshirt-freshman Jarrett Grace is the heir apparent at the Mike, and the staff has had nothing but positives on his behalf. But criticisms of players yet to hit the field are unnecessary and a rarity at the program (remember the example of Dayne Crist and Andrew Hendrix described in identical, glowing fashion a calendar year apart?)
By all accounts, Grace will one day be a quality leader for Bob Diaco's defense. For 2012, Te'o fills that role, among several others.
There's plenty of room for improvement on the field for the Butkus Finalist (we'll get to that in his summer Player Preview), but there's no chance for defensive improvement for the Irish in 2012 without the team's most important player in the middle of the action.
Note: Check back tomorrow morning for a message board discussion regarding the list of 10 Indispensable Irish for 2012.