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March 29, 2011

Te'o finds silver lining

Manti Te'o found the bright side of rehab, even that's meant watching the Irish defense take spring practice steps without him.

Sidelined following an off-season aggravation of a knee injury suffered in the Sun Bowl, Notre Dame's most talented defender sat most of the past week, skipping 11-on-11 drills. He underwent a knee scope at head coach Brian Kelly's urging after a "bad plant" during winter conditioning.

Full recovery might happen before the Blue-Gold Game, but Te'o won't bank on it. Instead, he hopes his comeback has the same arc as when he broke his foot as a sophomore at Punahou High School.

"Hopefully things follow my high school career because I didn't get hurt after that and we won a state championship," Te'o said. "Hopefully that equals a national championship in college."

If Notre Dame win its first title in a generation it needs a healthy Te'o to anchor the defense following his historically productive sophomore season of 133 tackles. That marked the most stops by an Irish player in a quarter century.

Reproducing that performance will rely on both Te'o and new head trainer Rob Hunt, who left Oklahoma State for Notre Dame. Hunt has turned into the linebacker's new position coach, spending 60-to-90 minutes per sessions on regular rehab, gearing to strengthen no only the knee, but the muscles around it.

"We're just pushing in the training room, that's been my domain," Te'o said. "In order to have growth you have to go through a little bit of strain, a little bit of pain. Just like lifting, you know what I mean? You're going to struggle, but you're going to get stronger from it. The same thing."

Those are the terms Kelly wants to hear from Te'o. That's because when the linebacker talks about his "grueling" rehab schedule, that's when Kelly stops wondering if he'll get him back on the field.

"We've got an incredible guy where we don't really need to see him on the field," Kelly said. "Now, we're kicking his butt in rehab right now."

Kelly said he expects Te'o to get more live work during spring's final week.

Apparently Te'o has enough energy to talk chalk with the team's other linebackers as Notre Dame searches for a new starter and a few trusted back-ups. Anthony McDonald stepped in for Te'o last week with Prince Shembo filling for the departed Kerry Neal. Back-ups Dan Fox, Ishaq Williams, Danny Spond and Kendall Moore haven't played meaningful minutes for Notre Dame if they've played minutes at all.

Last weekend Te'o worked formations on the board even before defensive coordinator Bob Diaco hit the meeting room. Even though Te'o isn't among next season's captains, it was the kind of leadership the Irish need to accompany that closing speed and 6-foot-2, 255-pound frame.

"It helps me that I have to know what's going on in order to tell my teammates what to do," Te'o said. "I'd say it's the hardest thing for me, not only to not play myself, but to watch my teammates play and watch them go through some hard times and I can't be out there on the field to try and pick them up. I understand what I've got to do and I understand that I've got to get healthy."


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