Notre Dame’s Manti Te’o ready to hit the awards circuit

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Manti Te’o will be gone all next week, traveling around the country and likely picking up an armful of trophies. He’s likely to be named a Heisman Trophy finalist next week, and he’s already a finalist for the Maxwell, Walter Camp, Bednarik, Nagursku, Lombardi, Butkus, Lott IMPACT and Senior CLASS awards.

Te’o doesn’t even know the itinerary, but ever the dutiful linebacker, he’ll stick to his assignments.

“I just go where I’m told,” he said on Thursday after accepting a sportsmanship award on campus from the Awards and Recognition Association.

Of course, Te’o also is still preparing for the BCS national championship game on Jan. 7, against the winner of Saturday’s SEC Championship between Alabama and Georgia. So he did have one request as he and coach Brian Kelly complete the awards circuit.

“I asked Coach Kelly to make sure there’s a gym in whatever place we stay, so when I come back, I’m not a D-lineman,” Te’o said.

Te’o’s primary competition for the Heisman is Texas A&M record-setting freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, A.K.A. Johnny Football. Kansas State’s Collin Klein is another contender, and he has one more chance to make his case Saturday against Texas. Te’o hasn’t seen Klein play, but was impressed by Manziel, the current odds-on favorite to win college football’s greatest individual honor.

“Dynamic player, a really, really good playmaker,” Te’o said of Manziel. “He always tends to make something out of nothing, and that’s definitely somebody that’s of Heisman material. I’m a really big fan.”

As for his own campaign, Te’o predictably deferred to his teammates.

“First and foremost, for me, it would be a great honor for my team,” he said. “Without my team, I wouldn’t be a Heisman candidate. If we weren’t 12-0, I wouldn’t be a Heisman candidate.”

As for the sportsmanship award he received on Thursday, athletic director Jack Swarbrick said it was a fitting honor.

“It’s hard to imagine a more deserving candidate,” he said. “Pre-eminent sports brands are rare. Even rarer is an athlete that perfectly captures the essence of a sports program. Maybe a Peyton Manning in Indianapolis, a Derek Jeter in New York, a Bill Bradley at Princeton.”

These are bittersweet times for Te’o. He’s at the top of his sport from both a team and individual standpoint. But he’s also at the end of his collegiate career. He graduates next month, and Thursday was his final day of school before finals. Following the BCS title game, he’ll leave school to prepare for the NFL combine.

So while he’s still lifting, and while he’ll be watching the SEC title game on Saturday, his mind hasn’t been on football quite as much as you might expect.

“My attention has just been on taking advantage of every day,” he said. “All I’ve been thinking about is the time I have left here at school with my peers, with my classmates. I’ll be gone all next week so today was my last week of school. It was just hard for me to know that it’s come to an end, a beautiful end.”

Te’o again called his decision to come back for his senior year “the best decision I ever made.”

“I love Notre Dame,” he said. “I love this place. This place is not a school, it’s a family. It’s a place you’ll always be connected with and welcome the rest of your life. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else and I can’t picture myself anywhere else but here, under the dome, and with my teammates and just experiencing everything. I’m definitely going to miss this place.”

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