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Notre Dame lineback Manti Te’o has first-round potential but dreams bigger

In this photaken Saturday Sept. 25 2010 Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o right tackles Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor during

In this photo taken, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, right, tackles Stanford running back Stepfan Taylor during second half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind. Te'o's 21 tackles in the game were the most by a Notre Dame player in four years (AP Photo/Michael Conroy)

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Updated: November 20, 2011 2:21AM

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Anyone worrying about Manti Te’o becoming distracted by his NFL future heading into his junior season at Notre Dame underestimates the tao of Te’o.

The All-American candidate doesn’t sit around dreaming about the NFL.

His dreams are bigger than that.

“Ever since I was young I understood the whole meaning of life isn’t how much money you can accumulate, how much fame you experience, it’s how many lives you touch, how many faces you bring smiles to,” the linebacker said when asked how he envisions himself in 20 years. “I see myself back in Hawaii doing something in the community to improve the lives of young children. Everything I’ve done is to prepare myself to give back.”

Notre Dame lacks depth at all the offensive skill positions and is so thin at running back that a pair of freshmen can expect meaningful carries. Converted running back Theo Riddick is still learning how to play receiver. The offense is led by Dayne Crist, who has suffered two major knee injuries the past two seasons.

There are no such concerns for a defense that should rank among the nation’s best. The heart of that unit is Te’o. The 6-foot-2, 255- pounder is projected as a high first-round draft pick should he chose to go pro after this season, yet when he talks about making an impact, it has nothing to do with the team-high 133 tackles he made last season.

“Being a leader,” he said, when asked how he can improve. “Being that constant force out there, that guy that no matter what’s happening on the field or going on on the sidelines, my teammates can turn to me and I can pick them up. I just want to be that guy they can trust and just try and have an influence on them they haven’t had. What I’m trying to say is, I want to have an impact on them beyond football.”

Eight defensive players who started at least eight games last season return. Those players have gained confidence playing in defensive coordinator Bob Diaco’s system. It’s an athletic group with standouts along the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary, where Harrison Smith returns after making 93 tackles and intercepting seven passes.

“He’s clearly, from our standpoint, our best linebacker,” Kelly said. “Now how we compare him to everybody else in the country, we don’t spend that much time doing that. I’ll let you guys do that. We look at him as a very, very integral part as to what we’re doing defensively. He hasn’t disappointed any day in terms of how he comes out to practice, his leadership, whether he’s having a bad day or not. It never affects the other guys on the field. He just has all those qualities you’re looking for.”

The better Te’o and the Irish do this season the more he may be tempted to follow Golden Tate and Jimmy Clausen to the NFL. Either way, he’ll handle that the same way he made the decision to come to Notre Dame. A devout Mormon, Te’o prays and waits for a sign from above.

“I love football,” he said. “There’s no doubt about that but I know life is more than football. Football will provide me with the means to give back. The amount of revenue I get from football and the amount of attention I get from football will hopefully provide me with the stage so people can know what I do — not for me. I don’t want the spotlight for me, but so they’ll be influenced to do something like that, to touch somebody else.”

Te’o will never forget the day he and his father spotted a homeless man begging for money by a stoplight in his hometown of Laie. He asked his father why some people were so poor they had to beg. His father said something he’ll never forgot: “People like that are here to find out whether or not we’ll help.”

From that moment, what Te’o has wanted most, even more than an NFL career, is to help others.

“People know Hawaii for the tropical beaches but if you go on one side of the island, where I’m from, those beaches are filled with homeless families,” he said. “When I leave college and hopefully the connections I make and the education I receive can help guide me through the possibilities and different routes I can go to to have the greatest impact on people.”

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