Will Te'o play on or be man on mission?
By Ferd Lewis
For a guy trained to defend against the option, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o will soon have a few choices of his own to run with.
Such as: Does he go on a church mission next year or play another season under the Golden Dome?
And what role — if any — will head coach Charlie Weis' increasingly precipitous situation play in the decision?
They are intriguing questions made to loom larger by the possibility Weis, whose five-year record is an un-Irish like 35-26, could be fired as soon as next week, especially if Notre Dame falls to 6-6 with a loss at Stanford Saturday.
Te'o was the most heavily recruited player to come out of the state when Weis and Notre Dame won an intense recruiting battle over a Who's Who of schools waged right up to national letter of intent day in February.
Stepping into the starting lineup to become the Irish's fourth leading tackler, Te'o has been as advertised. But even someone that recruiting gurus have touted as the Irish's top freshman linebacker in 30 years hasn't been enough to plug Notre Dame's weakest link, a porous defensive unit that is yielding 388.82 yards per game and ranks 80th in total and rush defense.
The Punahou School graduate has quickly become a fan favorite in South Bend, where he has embraced the storied traditions that surround it. Certainly there has been little for him to kick about this rookie season except, possibly, not being used more at middle linebacker where he is better suited than outside. Not that he has said one word.
From the beginning of the recruiting process, Te'o was up front on the missionary possibility, telling suitors he might serve a mission at some point on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. It is an option Notre Dame agreed to respect and one he has continued to keep open.
When asked about his plans last month, Te'o said, "My family and I are going to decide on that at the end of the season."
Since then the Irish have skidded from the national rankings and it looks increasingly like their two biggest stars, quarterback Jimmy Clausen and receiver Golden Tate, may opt for the NFL, which would thin the cupboard considerably for whomever the coach is next season.
How much any of that enters into Te'o's decision perhaps only he knows. For some, the choice of when — and if — to serve a mission is largely a spiritual decision while others weigh more heavily what also suits their college and pro prospects.
The most common path has been to serve a mission after the freshman year though some have opted for different schedules and others, such as Steve Young, have not gone at all during their college years.
Increasingly, it seems, some marquee players have chosen not to return to their original schools. Witness record-setting quarterback Max Hall, who was originally at Arizona State but transferred to Brigham Young after returning. Riley Nelson was at Utah State but wound up at BYU and Ben Olson, who began at BYU but switched to UCLA.
The trend had become such a point of controversy that the NCAA this year passed legislation prohibiting other schools from contacting a player during missionary service.
Whether Te'o is pounding running backs or knocking on doors proselytizing this time next year remains to be seen. But not for the first time in his young football career will his decisions be a much-watched one in a lot of places.