SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Manti Te'o's lighter, quicker and, best of all for Notre Dame, he's back for a senior season and ready to leave his mark as one of the school's greatest linebackers.
"Since it's my senior (season) I want to do this. I want to win to make sure Notre Dame is back up there," Te'o said Thursday during the school's football media day.
"This is my only time to actually have control over that. Once I leave, I don't have (control). While I'm in that locker room and on that field, I have good control of what is going on."
Te'o enters the season as the No. 8 tackler in school history with 324. He made 128 last season and 133 as a sophomore, combining speed, instinct and a determined approach to keep improving.
"He's a big-bodied guy. He's fast. He's got real good initial quickness. He's got an instinctual and intangible nose for the ball," Notre Dame defensive coordinator Bob Diaco says.
"He's got a spectacular skill set and the intangible blue-collar mentality, so it's a unique combination."
Te'o had to make a tough decision on his future and it came last December — stay in school and go pro? He discussed it with his parents, saying he didn't want to miss out on a final season in South Bend.
"I know that if I prepare myself, both mentally and physically, and spiritually, I'll be fine and whatever happens, happens. I told my parents, if I come out my senior game, my last game of the season against Wake Forest, whether I come out in pads or on crutches, it will be worth it," he said earlier.
It was the second time he'd chosen to remain with the Irish. After his freshman year, he decided to forgo a Mormon mission and return to school.
"It was very difficult in totally different ways," he said. "Going on my mission was an experience like no other. It was something to help me grow as a person. Leaving for the NFL would help my family financially, so there were different situations, but I used the same tools to make those decisions — I prayed about it and talked to my family about it and weighed the pros and cons of each.
"I think I've made the right decision for me and my family."
Te'o, who is listed at 6-2, 255, certainly wants to play in the NFL next year and part of the reason for losing 15 pounds was to keep himself stronger and injury free. He did it by not overeating and spacing out his meals.
"I think it naturally happened when I watched what I ate," he said. "I made the sacrifices I needed to make to be on the top of my game. People talk about injuries and the possibility of injuries, but a lot of those injuries occur when you are tired or out of shape, muscle pulls, stuff like that. If I'm in the best shape of my life, I shouldn't have to worry about that stuff."
Count fellow inside linebacker Dan Fox as one of those overjoyed to hear that Te'o was coming back.
"The opportunity you can go play in the NFL, and for him to come back, that meant a lot to us and the defense," said Fox, who became a starter last season.
"He helps me out a lot. One thing I noticed is he's starting to trust me more — not that he didn't before. You can rely on somebody a little more the more they play."
Te'o's teammates rely on him as a leader who will not hesitate to speak up when someone's not doing something the right way. With a coach's knowledge of the Irish defense, he expects accountability from himself and those around him.
"He's hard on himself, and the moments where he may lose focus, or he may not give it his all, even those moments are decreasing," said Diaco, a former college linebacker at Iowa.
"Not only is he going to be one of the very best linebackers that ever played here, if not the best, (but) one of the very best linebackers to ever play college football."
Te'o's place in Notre Dame history is not something he's given a lot of thought. A native of Laie, Hawaii, he's come a long way to make his mark on a program. He wants more than anything to go out a big winner.
"I hope I stand out as one of the best, but I don't get too caught up in all that stuff. Hopefully at the end of the day I'm one of the best," he said.
Notes: Coach Brian Kelly said by Monday he may sort out the practice repetitions for his No. 1 quarterback and the No. 2, meaning he will be close to picking a starter for the Sept. 1 opener in Dublin, Ireland, against Navy. Everett Golson, who's thrown only one interception during camp, and Andrew Hendrix, who played as a backup last season, are competing for the starter's role.