What Can Be Expected from Manti Te'o in his Sophomore Season
The First Season
Both fans and critics expected drama in the locker room. Analysts and commentators on ESPN, NFL Network and other news shows speculated and debated over how Te’o would be treated – or mistreated – by his NFL teammates. There was wonder and pondering over his reception and acceptance, and the drama that was expected to come upon him.
Surprisingly, it would be Jonathan Martin, not Manti Te’o that was struck by the misfortune of locker room dysfunction. As for Te’o, after going through public mockery over his personal life and the BCS championship loss, along with his drop in his Draft stock, Te’o enjoyed relatively little attention (and little drama) by the media and the general public.
In his first NFL season, Manti Te’o was protected by the Chargers’ coaching staff and managers from the local media. Te’o was eventually allowed to speak to reporters, but only after Chargers made reporters wait for an interview. After that, reporters’ focus on Manti morphed into a broader interest of the Chargers; Manti would ask questions in the locker room during the season, usually after a game, and sometimes before an upcoming match during training week. Manti also took part in various team events and other social appearances with his teammates, such as children charity fundraisers.
Outside of these local-oriented events, national media interest in Te’o was tame. The internet was the only national source of news that consistently followed the linebacker’s affairs; Te’o was hardly mentioned on TV, even when he suffered his season-ending concussion during the playoffs this past January. Considering how much attention he got over the Lennay Kekua story, the dramatic drop of interest by the national media in Te’o was softly stunning.
Manti Te'o in 2010
The Season of the Foot
The foot surgery this past winter could sum up the zig-zag misses and hits of Te’o’s rookie season.
His preseason was not fun for anyone, especially him and the Chargers. Having played only two sets in the opening week, his he had to wear a boot for the remaining three weeks of preseason and had to wait until the Chargers’ home game against the Dallas Cowboys before he could play. All those weeks of preparation were affected by the seemingly minor foot jam that turned out to be a mysterious handicap that eventually required surgery, throwing into question why anyone in Chargers’ camp would be numb about Te’o’s foot.
Whatever the specific aliment he played through, his game was impacted. Instead of focusing on his mistakes, it’s his positives and their impact that I wish to focus on.
In most of his games, Te’o did struggle to anticipate the opposing offensive players, mainly the offensive linemen and the opposing quarterbacks’ targets. But the one game where this setback had the least negative influence on his effectiveness was the Chargers’ second Monday Night game in San Diego, where they hosted the Indianapolis Colts under star quarterback Andrew Luck. With several veteran linebackers injured that week, Te’o was asked to call the defensive plays against Andrew Luck’s offense. As a whole, the Chargers’ defense was consistent and shockingly damning to Luck; any mistake the defense made in allowing the Colts to gain yards was eventually corrected with multiple fumbles, sacks and killing off the Colts’ yard drives. Andrew Luck would be kept off the field for much of the game, and the Chargers’ offense, despite their own struggles, acuminated points and won the game.
Manti’s best attribute was (and is) leadership. Manti made defensive calls that contributed to the Colts’ unexpected loss in San Diego. His own individual performance defensively was adequate most of the time, even though it was hard to see him when he was playing that night.
As the season progressed, Manti did not stand out as rookie; other rookies like Tavon Austin (St. Louis Rams) made standout statements, whereas Te’o had to push through getting out of mediocrity, a goal narrowly achieved. His intangibles did prove useful to the Chargers as they were able to make the playoffs, and the coaches were able to see enough progression in him to talk positively about his efforts to reporters.
As for his (numerous and frequent) on-field mistakes, such as missing tackles and failing to intercept or sack, all of them can be at least partially attributed to the damaged foot. It is hard to fully understand why Manti Te’o would play through what is now known to be a serious injury to his lower leg; team commitment and wanting to win games come off as the only explanations we can know.
What Can Be Expected?
It is impossible to know how Manti Te’o will do in his second season. However, giving a positive outlook to his sophomore year is not naïve in any sense.
Depending on how his foot heals, Manti is expected to show some improvement. At minimum, the Chargers’ coaching staff is hoping to see a reduction of Te’o’s cons. By becoming more familiar with the NFL environment and getting used to the faster pace, Manti is likely to effectively tackle, whether by himself or in partnership with a defensive teammate. Also, creating fumbles would be an expected sign of progression the coaches arguably desire from Te’o.
Sacks and interceptions are also desirable traits fans would out of Te’o, but he needs to first improve his reading of interpreting his opponents’ movements. During his NFL Draft months last year, his high IQ (with American football) was brought up in association with his leadership skills. Since the coaches can rely on him to make good defensive calls, the next step of improvement would be to figure out the opponents’ formulae, which would help Te’o respond better and not just react to merely the opponent in front of him. Once that is achieved, Te’o’s likelihood of sacking the quarterback and perhaps intercepting the ball will go up.
Probably the least difficult thing for Manti Te’o is expanding his leadership role. Rallying his teammates to shut down the opposing team may be his most valuable trait of improvement that can be expected for the better. If he can do that, the defense as a whole would possibly see a successful improvement upon their already improved consistency from last season. Recreating that solid wall they displayed against the Cowboys and Colts would greatly help Te’o in getting closer to outside expectations of him becoming a formidable linebacker, which in turn can aid the Chargers.