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D-E-F-E-N-S-E

The term is synonymous with a Notre Dame linebacker who came out of President Obama's school.

By 1.3.13

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Before World War II, college football did not allow free substitution of players. So, players played on both defense and offense. During World War II, with the best players in the armed services, the football rules were altered to allow unlimited substitution, permitting coaches to take advantage of the particular skills of the players. In 1945 the University of Michigan was the first to exploit the rule by employing the “two-platoon system” in which some players played only defense and some only offense.

This unlimited substitution rule that allowed the two-platoon system was repealed in 1954 but re-enacted for the 1965 season. It has remained in place since that season. And now we speak even of a third platoon -- the “special teams” unit.

In the succeeding years, various rules have been changed that have unwittingly or wittingly promoted offensive scoring. These include rules on how quarterbacks are treated, how offensive linemen may use their hands, how much contact may occur between the defense and receivers. And, it is claimed that some college coaches place their best athletes on offense.

It was into this environment that a 2009 graduate of the private Punahou School on Hawai’i (the same school from which President Obama graduated in 1979) joined the football team at the University of Notre Dame to play linebacker, a position on defense: Manti Te’o (pronounced “man-tie tay-oh”). You may have heard of him in connection with the Heisman Trophy Award made on December 8 in which he placed second. He finished with 321 first-place votes and 1,706 points -- the most ever by a defensive player in college football history and the second-highest for a runner-up.

The Heisman is considered the most prestigious in college football. Although it is colloquially regarded as being made to the most outstanding college football player, the specific wording is “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity.” Te’o made news because there have been few defensive player Heisman finalists since the defensive/offensive split of 1965, indeed since the Award’s conception in 1935. Only two defensive players have won the Heisman: Syracuse’s Ernie Davis in 1961 who played offense and defense, and Michigan’s Charles Woodson in 1997. No lineman has ever received the award. Given that record, the Heisman is de facto an award to an offensive skills player (quarterback, running back, receiver, tight end).

Given all of the hype surrounding the Heisman, it is easy to overlook all of the other awards made to college football players. And here, the star of Te’o shines ever so brightly. Based on the position he played, Te’o was eligible to receive 13 awards, the Heisman being just one of them. He won ten! (I can hear President Obama exclaiming, even about a fellow alumnus, that it is not “fair” that one person should win so many, that the accolades should be distributed more fairly.) The ten he won are:

  • Bronko Nagurski Award, awarded since 1993, to best defensive player
  • Dick Butkus Award, awarded since 1985, to top linebacker
  • Vince Lombardi Award, awarded since 1970, to best linebacker or offensive or defensive lineman
  • Chuck Bednarik Award, awarded since 1995, to best defensive player
  • Robert W. Maxwell Award, awarded since 1937, to the best football player
  • Walter Camp Award, awarded since 1967, to the Player of the Year
  • Lott Defensive IMPACT Player of the Year; awarded since 2004; (IMPACT is an acronym for: Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, and Tenacity)
  • Unanimous All-American Linebacker; (“unanimous” means that he was listed as linebacker by all 10 different groups that chose players for each position on an all-American team)
  • First Team, Football, Academic All-America,
  • ARA (Awards & Recognition Association) Sportsmanship Award, awarded since 2005

Admittedly, some of these awards were established fairly recently. Nonetheless, no other player at any position has ever received more than five major awards in college football history.

(Te’o was eligible for, but did not receive, two additional awards: the Campbell Trophy for top scholar-player (for which he was one of 15 finalists) and the Disney Spirit Award for most inspirational player or team (it went to a 29-year-old former Green Beret playing for the University of Texas, Nate Boyer). Te’o was not eligible for: the Doak Walker Award to the best running back; the Davey O’Brien Award to the best quarterback, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award, the Fred Biletnikoff Award to best wide receiver, the Johnny Mack Award to best tight end, the Outland Trophy to best interior lineman, the Rimington Trophy to best center, the Jim Thorpe Award to best defensive back, the Lou Groza Award to best place-kicker, the Ray Guy Award to best punter, the Ted Hendricks Award to best defensive end, and the Paul Hornung Award to best versatile player.)

It should be noted that these awards are based on a single season, not an entire college football career (but of course it is impossible to ignore a player’s entire career). And some of the awards are based on off-field community, academic, and other activities.

What did Te’o do on the field? In the 2012 season as a senior, Te’o had 103 total tackles (solo and assist); 5.5 of them were tackles for loss (TFL) of 19 yards. He had 1.5 sacks for a loss of 13 yards. He missed two tackles all season. He had 7 interceptions, recovered two fumbles, and hurried passers that resulted in two interceptions.

Okay, how does this compare to anyone else this season?

Tackles: Te’o is ranked 31 in the percentage of tackles he made compared to his team. Among top 10 defenses this year, he is ranked 4. For individual tackles as a percentage of total plays, Te’o is ranked 24 in the country. Among top 10 defenses, he is ranked third.

Turnovers: His nine turnovers are tied for the lead in the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision schools). Interceptions: His 7 interceptions tied him for third among all defenders in the FBS. Among linebackers, he led the FBS and they were the most by any FBS linebacker since 2001. Arguably, he is the most improved linebacker this season since he had no interceptions in his college games before this season.

How does Te’o compare at Notre Dame? Tackles: His next best teammate this season had 3 fewer tackles per game. In his career, Te’o had 427 total tackles (solos and assists). This places him third all-time behind Bob Crable (521, 1978–81) and Bob Golic (479, 1975–78). Only Te’o and Crable had 100-plus tackles in three consecutive seasons. Interceptions: Te’o has the Notre Dame record for interceptions by a linebacker in a single season.

There are, of course, the intangibles, the difficult-to-measure metrics. Football is a team sport. No player can achieve much without successful teammates. For example, rookie quarterbacks are typically drafted onto failing NFL teams that have poor offensive lines. (So, it is odd that a December 15 Washington Post story on this year’s stellar NFL rookie quarterbacks failed to mention their offensive lines.) Te’o, a team captain, led the No. 1 defense in the country: No. 1 in points allowed per game (10.3), No. 6 in yards/game allowed, No. 17 in turnover margin per game, No. 18 with 34 sacks for the season, No. 19 with 16 interceptions.

The Notre Dame-Alabama BCS National Championship on Monday, January 7, promises to be a defensive struggle. Alabama’s defense is ranked No. 2. The game will be held in Sun Life Stadium. Although it is an outdoor stadium, one can hope that the game will not be a soaked slugfest like the “mud bowl” of the November 2007 match between the Steelers and the Dolphins in Pittsburgh, won by the Steelers 3-0 on a field goal with 17 seconds remaining.

Notre Dame has played in some huge defensive struggles, including the scoreless tie against Army in 1946, the 10-10 tie against Michigan State in 1966, the 3-0 win over LSU in 1970.

Te’o is eligible for one more award following the game. An MVP is awarded to an offensive player and to a defensive player. Even should Notre Dame lose, he could garner the award, just as Chuck Howley, a Dallas Cowboys linebaker, won the 1971 Super Bowl MVP although Dallas lost.

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About the Author
James M. Thunder is a Washington, D.C. attorney.