The newest cover boy of Sports Illustrated — now at newsstands in the Midwest — is so dominant a linebacker that he is included in serious Heisman Trophy talk.
But Notre Dame senior All-American Manti Te’o, considered to be the best defensive player in college football, appears to be anything but a braggart.
“I haven’t had the chance to actually hold the magazine yet,” Te’o, a Hawaiian, said Wednesday during a Notre Dame teleconference. “But hopefully my parents got theirs. The main thing was that I could show my mom and dad.”
If ninth-ranked Notre Dame (4-0) is to continue its outstanding display of defense Saturday against unranked Miami (4-1) at Chicago’s Soldier Field, Te’o undoubtedly will be part of it.
“They have, arguably if you want, but I think unarguably the best player on defense in the country in Te’o,” Miami coach Al Golden said Wednesday.
Te’o, 6-2 and 255 pounds, has played a role in seven of the 13 turnovers forced by Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish — ranked third in scoring defense — have allowed an average of nine points a game in defeats of Navy, Purdue, Michigan State and Michigan.
His five takeaways this season — three interceptions and two fumble recoveries — are equal to the combined turnovers accumulated by the defenses of No. 14 Oregon State (four) and No. 17 Oklahoma.
A finalist for the Butkus Award in 2011 and top candidate for every major defensive award for which he’s eligible, Te’o led the Irish in tackles for a second consecutive season with 128 and already has 38 this season. He had six against UM as a sophomore in their last meeting at the Sun Bowl in 2010.
“He’s a werewolf, as [UM offensive line coach] Art Kehoe would say,’’ UM guard Jon Feliciano said. “He’s all over the field making big plays. He’s the flag carrier for their defense.’’
And he has done it despite incredible pain this season.
T’eo’s girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, died Wednesday, Sept. 12 after a long battle with leukemia. Her death came less than 24 hours after his maternal grandmother died of cancer. That Saturday, Sept. 15, he chose to play at then-No. 10 Michigan State, and did so with a fury. He had 12 tackles, one tackle-for-loss and a fumble recovery in Notre Dame’s 20-3 victory.
The next week, against then-No. 18 Michigan, Te’o had eight tackles and intercepted two Denard Robinson passes in Notre Dame’s 13-6 victory. His girlfriend was buried that day.
“I knew when they were going to close the casket and all that stuff, and it was during walk-through,’’ Te’o said. “And I remember I asked [defensive coordinator Bob] Diaco, ‘Coach, what time is it?’ and he said, ‘It’s 12:01.’ and that would be 9:01 California time, and 9:01 is when they closed the casket for my girlfriend, so I had a moment then.
“But I’ve never felt so strong; especially strong, and I could never thank the student body and the fans around the world for all their love and all their prayers and support.’’
Te’o said he wanted to go to his girlfriend’s service, but that “she made me promise. … She said, ‘Babe, if anything happens to me, you promise that you’ll still stay over there and you’ll play and you’ll honor me through the way you play, and know that I would rather have you there.’
“All she wanted was some white roses. … So I sent her roses and sent her two picks along with that. So that was good.”
After a week off with the rest of his teammates, Te’o now is about to face an offense that he said impresses him.
“They have a lot of speed, the best group of skill players, best unit that we have seen so far,’’ he said. “They have a great coach that has changed the mentality at the University of Miami and a quarterback that has seen some success. … He has a lot of weapons around him and he knows how to throw the ball around.
“We have to get after him when we pressure and when we don’t, we’ve really got to stay in our zones and stay in man, whatever the call is.
“You know, as always, respect your opponent, know what they can do, know your opponent, know the terrain, and you should be fine.’’