As a freshman in 2009, Manti Te'o was very good compared to your average rookie college starter. Following a regime change into his sophomore and junior seasons under head coach Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, Te'o was better than most -- a quality football player, the best on Notre Dame's solid, unspectacular defense.
But to be blunt, there were few moments in which Irish fans or college football aficionados sat in front of their sets or in the stands in the House that Rockne Built during Te'o's first three years and thought, "That guy's the best player on the field. He changes everything."
During those same three seasons I thought that of former Irish standout Golden Tate. I thought it of Michael Floyd, of Michigan's Denard Robinson, of USC's Robert Woods, of Boston College's Luke Kuechly, and of Stanford's Andrew Luck. But not of Te'o, not until 2012.
For the the first month of the season, Te'o has ranked among the best players in college football. I don't expect that to change during October and November.
He's progressed from prodigy to legitimate force on the football field. He's a dominant player on what appears to be a top tier Irish defense. He's the heart, the soul, the conscience, the top performer, and the unquestioned leader of the cast.
Most important, he's the leading man, but also part of the crowd.
Among, Not Above
"He knows the names of the walk-ons. He knows all those guys. Doesn't call them, 'Hey 32' or '57.' He knows each one of those guys. I've been doing this a long time. I'm not saying all the great players don't know the names of other players. But he takes special attention to know the names of guys that don't play prominent roles. That's pretty unique."
Brian Kelly's observations of Te'o have made the rounds among national media. After four years of Te'o interviews following victory and defeat, Kelly's revelation was more fitting than surprising, but it was Kelly's offering of Te'o two weeks later that spoke volumes of the latter's place in the program.
"Manti was a freshman who in our first evaluation, was a physical player that didn't know how to play the position yet," said Kelly of the Te'o he inherited in December 2009. "If you're looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program…so Heisman Trophy, MVP, top collegiate player, we think he fits those categories."
So too does Te'o's mentor, Bob Diaco.
“I would say that Manti is the finest football player in America, all positions, all teams in college, and that he’s the best football player that I’ve personally coached."
Its that coaching that Te'o credits for his improvement as a player, leader, teammate, and person.
"I think Coach Diaco is not only won of the best coaches in the country, but one of the best coaches in life," said Te'o of his position coach and coordinator since January 2010. "When you have a team that not only plays for themselves and each other, but plays for their coach, it makes that team very, very strong, and very, very special.
"I think that a lot of people credit the change of our defense to the personnel that we have: the front seven, or our DBs, how fast they are, how the speed (has improved). These were the same guys people were saying were slow, that our defense was slow.
"The only thing I can tell you that has been the greatest change is our coach, Coach Diaco.
"He's our mentor, he's our second dad. When you have that connection with a coach, you'll do whatever for him and do anything for him. I think our defense has really paid tribute to him and the sacrifices that he and our other coaches on the defensive side will have made to make us the successful defense that we are thus far."
That success has the Irish ranked among the nation's Top 10 for the first time in Te'o's tenure in South Bend and for the first time since for any Notre Dame team since November 2006. That welcomed success hasn't affected Te'o.
"For me, that's great, I'm very thankful," said Te'o of early-season accolades that include Heisman trophy mention. "I mean, it's kind of surreal that I'm on that list that I used to make myself as a running back on video games and win the Heisman as a fictional character; but to be actually, you know, a candidate for that, and in real life, is really-- is a real surprise for me.
"And if my play helps me win the Heisman, so be it, but I just want to win."
Te'o entered the 2012 season among the program's top 10 tacklers, top 15 in tackles-for-loss, and as one of just three reigning Butkus finalists (the nation's top linebacker) over the last 25 seasons of linebackers at the program. He also entered with a pedestrian mark of 22 wins in 38 career games.
"We all understand we've had the spotlight, but that's not worth anything if you don't win," said Te'o in August of a senior class that's received ample individual accolades. "I know how it feels to sit in mid-January and watch a national championship. I want to play in a BCS bowl, and the way we're going to do that is focus on every team."
That focus has produced a 4-0 start, national on field relevance, and plenty of acclaim for the team's best player, including a cover spot on Sports Illustrated.
"I haven't had the chance to actually hold the magazine yet," said Te'o, "but hopefully my parents got theirs. The main thing was that I could show my mom and dad…the excitement they got out of it. That it was one of those experiences that I can show my parents. "
A reaction befitting a player who continues to think of others first as he ascends to the top.