Te'o Ready to Exhale

SOUTH BEND -- Manti Te'o settled into one of two folding chairs placed in front of a cafeteria table inside the Isban Auditorium. A gaudy gold Notre Dame helmet was hurriedly placed on both sides of the table, a throng of local and national reporters and camera crews at the ready after Notre Dame's Pro Day workout Tuesday.

At first, he sat alone, awaiting the inevitable.

Fittingly, fellow first-round hopeful Tyler Eifert soon joined him to occupy the empty chair to Te'o's left. They were misaligned, because apparently Eifert, the program's best tight end since the late 1970s, had made it his mission to be Te'o's right-hand man during the dark days of January 2013.

"This guy next to me, I'm eternally indebted to this guy because that was possibly the hardest time of my life," said Te'o of Eifert. "I was lucky I had one of my best friends with me. This guy checked up on me every day. Came over even when I said 'No, I don't want anybody to talk to.' He knocked the door down to play video games or something. To have Eif there, it was a blessing in disguise for me."

Te'o noted the support he's received from the places that matter most has been overwhelming.

"The two places I call home have had nothing but support. Here, in South Bend, the Notre Dame community and back (in Hawaii). They've been…home. Guys have reached out to me and my family. I've just been very blessed."

(The Manti Te'o saga has been chronicled to a point well beyond the absurd, but if you're unaware of situation, Google "Manti" coupled with any other word of your choosing and you'll surely be made abreast).

It was Te'o's first speaking appearance in South Bend since before his Irish began their de facto Bataan Death March to Miami. It would be thematically different than all recent lines of questioning that took the Notre Dame graduate away from his familiar comfort zones.

The football field. The University. His family, both in Hawaii and on campus in South Bend.

He was ready to talk about something besides, IT. He was ready to talk about football.

"Who do we play this week? Do they have a scrambling quarterback?" he asked as reporters dropped their recorders at his microphone.

There's no game this week, but one draws nearer every day. Te'o and the rest of the 2013 NFL Draft hopefuls are finished with their shorts and shirtless job interviews, and will soon have to prove their wares between the lines.

The NFL combine, both its interviews and physical tests, and yesterday, Notre Dame's Pro Day on campus, are all in the rear view.

Te'o can finally exhale.

"If you ask anybody who's going through this process, this is possibly the best day. Ever," Te'o said of his campus Pro Day. "It's a big, big burden off your shoulders. It feels like a birthday. I'm very glad that it's over."

Te'o, Eifert, and 11 of their former classmates completed their Pro Day drills early Tuesday afternoon. Though Eifert is on par with Te'o as a prospect, it was the latter most came to see.

Pass or fail.

"I felt good. It was kind of a grand finale thing with everybody there," he said of his performance. "I had guys around me that I spent the last four years with, that I was comfortable with. It was more comfortable being out here and performing here at Notre Dame."

That comfort level won't exist the next time he puts on pads. It doesn't have to, because Te'o, the football player, will be in his other element...

Between the lines.

"They've seen what I can do on a football field. That's where I'm comfortable," said Te'o of his present and future evaluators. "Find ball, hit ball, and make plays. That's what I'm going to improve on, and I'm glad this is over and all of us can just focus on preparing to play football now."

"We play football with a helmet on, with shoulder pads," he continued. "Obviously all these tests are something you want to do well at. You don't just say 'Watch my tape.' Whenever you're competing you want to do well. When you do it's a big accomplishment. When you don't, it motivates you to improve. These drills that we do, these tests, it's frustrating. But it's a great learning opportunity and a great way for us to just go out there and compete."

Te'o survived 20 teams questioning his aforementioned saga. He's moved past the vexing combine and a sub-par 40-yard dash time. He improved on that straight line sprint today, running an unofficial 4.69.

And he looked agile doing what he does best: running around a football field.

"I was just having fun," said Te'o when asked about a dropped interception in individual drills. "That's my domain, that's where I'm most comfortable. Running sideline to sideline, changing direction. I definitely was having fun out there."

He was able to have fun because three months of internal struggle and two of subsequent media scrutiny are finally about to dissipate.

Asked if the dead girlfriend drama was also in his "rearview" Te'o noted. "It is for me. I'm back home. I'm with my guys. I'm around this building. That stuff is long gone."

It won't truly be gone until Te'o proves he can play at the highest level. The beginning destination for that journey includes improving upon weaknesses, perceived and otherwise.

"The one area I'd like to improve on is getting off of blocks and using my hands," said Te'o of an immediate goal. "Once I improve on that aspect of my game there'll be more production out of my play."

Like Eifert, Te'o will likely have his name called in the first round on April 25. Like Eifert, Te'o won't be in New York at the Radio City Music Hall for the festivities.

"No. I'll be at home," Te'o offered.

He didn't specify which one.

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