“There won’t be any problems in the locker room,” Smith said. “No doubt, no matter where he goes, guys are going to make fun of him at least a little bit. But I know Manti and I don’t think it’ll be a problem. It’s not like he did anything malicious or that he’s a bad guy or anything.
“I don’t think he was making anything up. I think he was just a little naïve maybe.”
A football mentality
When it comes to football, however, Smith said Te’o has the mental toughness to withstand anything thrown his way. By all accounts, that’s what he displayed while being verbally pepper-sprayed by reporters at the scouting combine.
“This is a Mormon kid from Hawaii who came to the freezing cold of Indiana to play for Notre Dame, a Catholic school, and he thrived,” Smith said. “The No. 1 thing about Manti is he’s all about playing football. Guys are going to make fun of you no matter what happens, especially as a rookie. You’re going to get poked fun at a little bit. Manti is the kind of guy who will just roll with it. Once he starts making plays, which he will, guys will forget about everything that’s happened.”
It’s uncertain how teams view the girlfriend hoax. What is known, however, is every team that’s interviewed Te’o has asked him to explain it. Spielman watched Dr. Phil for the first time in his life and admits he’s called on his young sons to help the old man get a better grip on social media and all this “tweeting or twittering.”
Spielman is especially interested in Te’o. He has no starting middle linebacker, a need for a three-down playmaker and a penchant for picking Golden Domers. The three who played with Te’o (Smith, safety Robert Blanton and tight end Kyle Rudolph) have given the green light on his character.
“I was at Notre Dame’s pro day and hung out with Manti and those guys,” Blanton said. “I told Manti to come on up to Minnesota because it’s like Notre Dame up there. He would be a great fit. He’ll be great dealing with the scrutiny he’s going to face. He’s a strong guy physically and mentally. He was the main man at Notre Dame. He won’t have any trouble.”
Headed for the NFL
Draft experts differ significantly on where they think Te’o will be selected. ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. projects him as the 20th pick to Chicago, which needs a replacement for Brian Urlacher. But his ESPN cohort Todd McShay thinks Te’o will slide to No. 32 as Baltimore’s replacement for another future Hall of Famer, Ray Lewis.
“I tried to get him down to Minnesota because it makes so much makes sense at No. 23,” Kiper said. “They desperately need a middle linebacker. It would be perfect for what they do there. Rick Spielman’s brother, Chris Spielman, was the same thing. Great production, not a great 40. Chris Spielman had a heck of a career [at middle linebacker] in the NFL.”
Two other factors besides the hoax could be in play if Te’o tumbles: His 40-yard dash times and his poor performance in Notre Dame’s blowout loss to Alabama in the national championship game. After running a 4.82 at the scouting combine, Te’o ran a 4.71 at his pro day. That was respectable, but not in the same ballpark as the 4.5s run by San Francisco’s Patrick Willis (No. 11 in 2007) or Carolina’s Luke Kuechly (No. 9 in 2012).
“First of all, I know he missed some tackles in the Alabama game, but one game does not define a career,” Smith said. “As for the 40 times, Manti plays with an instinct and recognizes things so quickly that he plays faster than anything anyone is going to measure at a combine or a pro day.
“Whatever was asked of him, he could make himself fit. He played in a 4-3 early on in our careers and then he played a 3-4 at the end. Bottom line is Manti Te’o can play football. He’d be an awesome fit for us.”