A former five-star prospect who turned himself into the unquestioned leader of one of the nation's best defenses, or the naive victim of a hoax that tore a hole through his personal narrative? Surefire tackler and technician of the college football regular season, or over-matched linebacker of the national championship game? First rounder or untouchable?
There are better players in the 2013 NFL Draft, but there will not be a player more scrutinized, more discussed, or more fascinating than Notre Dame's Manti Te'o.
Te'o was recruited from Hawaii to Notre Dame by former coach Charlie Weis. He was a top NFL prospect after his junior season, but returned to South Bend for a chance at a national title. His story -- the story that now consumes the nation -- was told early and often. In late September, with the Irish facing a crucial game against Michigan State, Te'o's grandmother and girlfriend died in quick succession.
He stayed to play against the Spartans, recording 12 tackles in a Notre Dame win, then intercepted two crucial passes against Michigan the next week to catapult the Irish into the national title picture. Te'o, fueled in part by good tackle and interception numbers but more by his narrative of loss and stories of his legendary leadership skills, became the runner-up for the Heisman Trophy.
Te'o played miserably in the national championship game against Alabama though, missing tackles he normally made without incident. Two weeks later, he became the center of controversy when it was disclosed that his deceased girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, did not actually exist. Te'o claimed he was the victim of the hoax and not a co-conspirator, but the incident cast massive doubt on his draft status. He remains 15th on the SB Nation Big Board.
(Manti Te'o vs. Michigan, courtesy of DraftBreakdown.com)
Pros: As a pure linebacker, Te'o is good-bordering-on-great. Aside from the Alabama game, he had proven himself as a sure tackler with the ability to diagnose plays quickly and shed blockers effectively. Te'o had his best performances against Notre Dame's toughest opponents. He recorded 12 tackles against Michigan State, eight tackles and a pair of interceptions against Michigan, 11 tackles against Stanford, and 10 tackles and a pick against Oklahoma.
At 6'2 and 255 pounds, he possesses ideal size for an NFL middle linebacker. And all of his physical qualities were magnified by his legendary leadership of an Irish defense that nearly won a national championship. If Te'o's skills made him a first-rounder, his intangibles were to make him a surefire top-10 choice at a position that does not generate many top-10 selections.
Cons: The Kekua scandal may change everything. If Te'o was the victim of the hoax, as he claims, he displayed incredible naivete in falling for it and, at the very least, continued the hoax after he allegedly discovered it in December. If Te'o had a part in the hoax in order to generate fame, sympathy, or Heisman Trophy buzz, he is radioactive.
In either case, his leadership qualities are being called into question. Nobody imagines a locker room full of grizzled veterans following someone so gullible or toxic into battle. Without those intangibles, Te'o is a good middle linebacker, possibly worthy of a first-round selection, but by no means assured of top draft status. He will have to answer questions regarding the story to every GM's satisfaction if he is to retain his once-lofty draft status.
Te'o fell out of the first round in Mocking the Draft's latest mock draft. While he played in a 4-3 at Notre Dame, Te'o's skills against the run and in pass protection could place him in an inside linebacker position in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme. Pittsburgh, the New York Giants, Cincinnati, and Minnesota might consider Te'o in the middle of the first round. If he does slip into the second round, Cleveland and Buffalo could take interest.
If you want to follow Te'o on twitter, check out his handle @MTeo_5