Manti Te'o is 'one of the guys' in San Diego

June, 12, 2013
6/12/13
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Manti TeoAP Photo/Denis Poroy"It's a perfect place for me," rookie linebacker Manti Te'o said of San Diego.

SAN DIEGO -- When the San Diego Chargers moved up seven picks in the second round to offer free-falling Manti Te'o a safety net, the pick was universally applauded.

My initial take was that it was a great fit for Te’o, who went from decorated Notre Dame middle linebacker to a perceived risky pick thanks to a strange Internet hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend. It turned Te’o from a Heisman Trophy runner-up into a household name on the tabloid circuit.

Even though he was taken about 30 spots later than originally expected (the Chargers took Te’o with the No. 38 pick), the San Diego selection appeared to be the perfect consolation for Te’o’s terrible three-month ordeal.

Te’o fits the Chargers’ 3-4 defensive scheme perfectly. San Diego is not a major media market. The Chargers have a mature locker room that can lead Te’o. San Diego is relatively close to his native Hawaii and the city has a thriving Polynesian community.

Less than two months into his San Diego tenure, Te’o completely agrees.

“It’s a perfect place for me,” Te’o said after a minicamp practice in which he was a major part of the defense.

“This organization is full of good people who care about each other. ... It’s the perfect situation.”

The key for Te’o’s comfort level in San Diego is his teammates. It is clear the team has taken to Te’o, who has a strong work ethic and a desire to be the best as selling points. Teammates and coaches have raved about his work ethic.

Team insiders said the hoax has never been mentioned and it is a non-issue in the locker room. The only heckling or hazing Te’o gets from his veteran teammate is the occasional “You’re not at Notre Dame anymore, rook” when he is beaten on a play.

Translation: Te’o has fit in. It is obvious it is a major relief to him.

"When we're out on the football field, everything else doesn't matter," Te’o said. "Thankfully, for me, I'm surrounded by a bunch of teammates who have really pushed me to be better. All they care about is that No. 50 is working his butt off. I'll take care of the work ethic part, and for them, they just make sure that I'm going in the right direction.”

[+] EnlargeSan Diego's Manti Te'o
Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports"When we're out on the football field, everything else doesn't matter," said Manti Te'o.
As Te’o says, he and his teammates are in the locker room for the same reason. It was easy to sense that Te’o is being judged on his football ability by his teammates and coaches.

San Diego head coach Mike McCoy praised Te’o’s ability to stay on the field for three downs and simply said this: “He is one of us now.”

Quarterback Philip Rivers, who is always polite and agreeable in media sessions, appeared annoyed that some questions still revolve around Te’o’s non-football life.

"He's one of the guys. He hasn't been treated differently than any of the other guys,” Rivers said. "He hasn't acted any differently than any of the other guys. He's acted himself. He's lived up to everything thus far that I think is expected of him, both on the field and off.

“I’m still trying to figure out what the story is ... the story is so old and tired. I'd have figured y'all had moved on to something else by now."

While his teammates are tiring of the subject, Te’o deserves much credit for the way he is handling the situation. Tuesday, he spent about 20 minutes with media members and he politely answered every question. He never seemed agitated or perplexed when the hoax was brought up. He was thoughtful and he looked questioners in the eye.

He appears mature beyond his 22 years and all the talk of his sterling character at Notre Dame is easy to buy. I think the player should be allowed to concentrate on football like every other NFL rookie. Unless more information on the hoax that implicates Te’o is somehow unearthed, I don’t think he should be asked about it anymore. As of now, there is nothing more to be gleaned.

The focus now should be on how Te’o can help this team. Ask Te’o a football question and his eyes light up. It’s easy to tell he loves the game and the passion he showed in college is still with him.

“He has great instincts,” Rivers said. “The things he that can’t be coached, he has.”

The Chargers have a promising, young defense. But the team does need help in the middle. San Diego was last in red zone defense last season. It allowed a touchdown on 70 percent of opponents’ red zone trips. Notre Dame was ranked third in the country in red zone defense last season.

Te’o appears ready to do what it takes to help the cause. However, he did chuckle when a reporter asked him what he thought about becoming the face of the franchise.

“I’ll leave that up to Philip and (safety Eric Weddle) and (tight end Antonio Gates), Te’o said. “I just want to be the best Charger I can be.”

For Te’o, that would make this perfect place even better.

Bill Williamson | email

ESPN Oakland Raiders reporter

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