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Notre Dame's Manti Te'o: College football's best defensive player


Manti Te'o is the best defensive player in college football, and it's not even close.

While fans of Georgia's Jarvis Jones, South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney and several others might take umbrage with that statement, I will not back down from my assessment after watching the Notre Dame star dominate another game from his linebacker position.

Te'o finished with 11 tackles and a ton of teeth-rattling hits, helping Notre Dame notch a 20-13 overtime win against Stanford on Saturday. While he didn't come up with a game-changing turnover or force Stanford to lose any yards, Te'o was an integral part of a defense that controlled the line of scrimmage against a Cardinal squad that routinely overwhelms opponents with its physical running game.

Closely watching Te'o throughout the game, I came away impressed with his athleticism, aggressiveness and instincts. He flowed quickly to the ball and delivered punishing shots on runners in the hole. Most importantly, Te'o was the pivotal player on the game-clinching goal-line stand that kept Stanford's Stepfan Taylor from reaching the end zone on four consecutive plays inside the Irish 5-yard line. I broke down that four-play sequence; Te'o was in the middle of the action throughout. He repeatedly finished off Taylor before he could get the ball across the plane. Te'o's willingness to lay big hits on the runner kept the Cardinal star from reaching paydirt with the game on the line.

Te'o's standout production against Stanford can be added to an impressive senior résumé that includes superb performances against Navy (eight tackles, a fumble recovery and an interception), Michigan (eight tackles and two interceptions) and Michigan State (12 tackles). It's hard to find many issues or concerns about Te'o's ability to develop into a difference maker at the next level.


With the proliferation of the tight end in the NFL, scouts covet safeties with cornerback-like skills. Prior to the season, Texas' Kenny Vaccaro and LSU's Eric Reid were considered the top safeties in the country, due to their impressive physical dimensions, athleticism and playmaking ability. However, both guys have shown inconsistencies in their play this year, and scouts aren't sure if they would be immediate difference makers as pros.

One AFC South personnel director cited Vaccaro's tackling as a primary concern following his disappointing performance against Oklahoma State a few weeks back. The scout told me that he still believes Vaccaro is the top hybrid safety in the college game, but would need to show more physicality in his play to earn high marks as a prospect. The scout called Reid, meanwhile, a "box area" player with the tenacity and physicality that you look for at the position. But he also expressed concerns about Reid's ability to play in space. With several NFL teams utilizing tight ends as No. 1 targets in the passing game, safeties become integral pieces on Sunday. It is important for both of these players to show continued improvement in many areas.


Eddie Lacy, RB, and T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Alabama is quickly becoming known as Tailback U. Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson parlayed collegiate success with the Crimson Tide into first-round selections in the NFL draft. And there doesn't seem to have been any drop-off with Lacy and Yeldon, who both put on a show Saturday night in Columbia, Mo. Against Missouri, the duo combined for 321 rushing yards on 36 attempts with five rushing touchdowns. Lacy, a 6-foot-1, 220-pound redshirt junior with a hard-nosed running style, paved the way with 177 yards on a variety of punishing runs between the tackles. Yeldon, a 6-2, 216-pound true freshman with an exceptional combination of speed, strength and power, did the majority of his damage on an assortment of off-tackle runs that allowed him to get to the perimeter quickly. With the deadliest combination of runners in college football, it is not surprising the Crimson Tide has little difficulty dispatching opponents with suspect defenses.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
If you haven't paid close attention to the Aggies, you've missed out on one of college football's most electrifying playmakers in Manziel. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound freshman has torched the SEC with his impressive skills as a dual-threat quarterback, and few opponents have discovered the right formula for limiting his impact. Against an overmatched Louisiana Tech defense, Manziel displayed his full arsenal of skills, amassing 576 yards of total offense (an SEC record). Although the numbers are certainly noteworthy on their own merit, it was the way Manziel generated his production that stood out the most in my mind. He completed 24 of 40 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns, and added 181 rushing yards on 19 attempts with another three scores. Those statistics are impressive in every respect, and reflect the significant impact Manziel can have with the ball in his hands. Although many have anointed West Virginia's Geno Smith the frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy, Manziel should start to garner some attention as one of college football's top players.

Sam Montgomery, DE, and Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
The Tigers' dynamic defensive-end tandem was expected to dominate the SEC with crazy athleticism and pure talent, but the duo had been relatively quiet for most of the year. However, Montgomery and Mingo brought their "A" game in a 23-21 win over South Carolina on Saturday, combining for seven tackles and three sacks. Each flashed exceptional speed and quickness off the edge while also displaying the athleticism and movement skills to dominate isolated matchups. With Montgomery and Mingo wreaking havoc off the edges, LSU was able to harass quarterback Connor Shaw into a dismal performance that put a damper on the Gamecocks' national championship dreams.

Damien Williams, RB, Oklahoma
The Red River Rivalry is routinely a showcase of NFL-caliber talent, and it certainly didn't disappoint this year, with Williams enjoying a breakout performance against Texas on Saturday. Williams ran 22 times for 167 yards, including a 95-yard touchdown that broke the game open in the first quarter. In helping the Sooners run roughshod over the Longhorns, Williams displayed a mix of speed, quickness and power that enabled him to be effective on an assortment of off-tackle runs. Most importantly, he showed the ability to make defenders miss at the second level, turning short runs into big gains in the open field. Given Williams' explosiveness, burst and big-play ability, the Sooners finally have a balanced attack that can present problems for Big 12 foes.

Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State
Lost amid the big-name receivers in the Pac-12 is a burgeoning playmaker in Corvallis, Ore., who has exceptional hands and running skills. Wheaton has emerged as a legitimate No. 1 receiver for the Beavers. With Wheaton anchoring the passing game, the team has been able to overcome the loss of starting quarterback Sean Mannion. Against BYU, Wheaton put on a spectacular performance that showcased his versatility as a difference maker. Wheaton finished with five receptions for 66 yards and two touchdowns, adding a 12-yard touchdown on an incredible end-around run. Oregon State is quietly climbing up the charts and into national championship contention behind Wheaton's impressive play, and it won't be long before scouts flock to see his game up close and personal.


Geno Smith, QB, West Virginia
After enjoying a sensational start to the 2012 season, Smith delivered a lackluster performance against Texas Tech in a 49-14 loss on Saturday. Smith completed just 29 of 55 passes for 275 yards and one touchdown, failing to get the Mountaineers' high-powered offense going against the Red Raiders' defense. Although Smith avoided turning the ball over, he was off the mark on several routine tosses and never looked comfortable throwing from a collapsing pocket. Smith's performance ultimately will not cost him significantly in the race for the Heisman Trophy, but it did allow scouts to see some of his flaws in a big game.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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