SOUTH BEND, Ind. — It's not often that BYU coach Bronco Mendenhall finds himself embroiled in a recruiting battle with Notre Dame.
But that was the case four years ago, when the Cougars were vying for the services of highly touted prep linebacker Manti Te'o.
Te'o, who is a member of LDS Church from Laie, Hawaii, strongly considered BYU — along with USC and Stanford — before ultimately choosing to play for the Fighting Irish.
"We wanted Manti, and we thought he was an excellent player," Mendenhall recalled this week. "There was a heavy recruiting race. He had an official visit and saw everything that we had to offer, and didn't really want BYU. Certainly our evaluation of him as a player was right — he's very good."
Very good, indeed.
The 6-foot-2, 255-pound senior middle linebacker is a consensus preseason All-American and could receive some Heisman Trophy consideration, which, of course, is unusual for someone playing on the defensive side of the ball.
The Cougars will get a closer look at Te'o Saturday (1:30 p.m., MT, NBC) when they visit No. 5 Notre Dame.
Though he is LDS and knows several BYU players, Te'o is downplaying this matchup.
"It's just game seven (of the season)," he said. "When you start to do things differently than you've done in the past, then bad things start to happen. I've been there before. I've made the mistake of being overly excited for a game and it hurt me. So unfortunately for me, I've been there, done that. That's a mistake that won't happen again."
Te'o is tenaciously focused on the upcoming opponent each week, and not much else.
"My eyes are trained for BYU," he said. "My eyes are used to seeing BYU play. My eyes are used to seeing what BYU runs in certain formations."
Te'o anchors a defense that ranks No. 2 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 11 in total defense, and No. 14 in passing defense. The Irish have not allowed a touchdown in four games, and have yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season.
BYU tight end Kaneakua Friel played against Te'o in high school.
"He's a great player," Friel said. "He runs to the ball, and he's physical and we have to prepare for that. One thing I always loved about him is that he always pursued to the ball. He's a very passionate player."
BYU offensive coordinator Brandon Doman is very familiar with Te'o, having been heavily involved in recruiting him.
"I know him and I've been in his house," Doman said. "We fought all the way to the end. I was in Hawaii the last week of recruiting, trying to get him to come to BYU."
Doman's reaction to Te'o's decision not to play at BYU?
"Way disappointed," Doman said. "He's a great kid and a great player. Notre Dame is fortunate to have him because he's a good leader. He's the type of young man every team would like to have. It was unfortunate that we didn't get him."
Cougar linebacker Kyle Van Noy was being recruited the same year as Te'o, and there was a time when Van Noy thought he and Te'o might be teammates.
"I used to talk to him when we were getting recruited," Van Noy said. "I haven't spoken to him for a while. I don't really watch much of what he's doing. I know he's having a good year."
In his career, Te'o has recorded 383 tackles, including 184 solo tackles.
"Believe the hype with Manti Te'o," said BYU quarterback Riley Nelson. "He's as good as advertised. He's the heart and soul of that defense and makes it tick. He's smart, he route-reads very well. His reaction is very good. You can tell he's been a four-year starter and he's a guy that loves the game and is a student of the game. He's going to play it for a long time."
Meanwhile, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said Te'o is much more than a talented player.
"What I do know is that unquestionably, as a leader, there has not been anyone in my 22 years that is a better leader both on and off the field and represent the kind of ideals that you want in college football than Manti Te'o and I don't even think that's close," Kelly said. "And I've had extraordinary young men that have played for me. So that, I know for sure, that as a leader and a representative of our program, unmatched."
Te'o makes it a priority to learn the name of every walk-on on Notre Dame's roster, explaining that he doesn't want anyone to feel left out or to eat alone.
Meanwhile on the field, Te'o wreaks havoc, affecting opposing teams' game plans.
"You have to know where he is. He triggers so fast. He's a smart football player," Doman said. "He's been doing it now for a while. He's well-coached and he's very athletic We'll have to utilize a few different schemes to give us a chance to be successful."
"We're going to have to account for him and I'm going to have to do a good job, every time I drop back, of knowing where he is," Nelson said.
Friel remembers in high school Te'o seemed to be all over the field, and he expects the same thing on Saturday.
"No matter where the ball was thrown or where it was run away from him, he was always chasing it down," Friel said. "That contributes to the amount of tackles he has now and the past couple of years. But he's just another player. We can't let that hype get into our heads."
Cougars and Fighting Irish on the air
BYU (4-3) at No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) Saturday, 1:30 p.m. MT
Notre Dame Stadium, South Bend, Ind.
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM
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