SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o says if he wins the Heisman Trophy it would be a victory for all defensive players.
"It would definitely be a great step for all of us," he said.
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Te'o would become just the second defensive player to capture the award, joining Michigan's cornerback Charles Woodson, who won in 1997. But Woodson also played some at wide receiver and returned punts. Te'o would be the first player who played defense only to win the award and the eighth Notre Dame player to win.
While being a defensive player makes winning the award a challenge, Te'o is the face of a defense that for much of the season carried the top-ranked Fighting Irish (12-0) and has Notre Dame on the brink of its first national championship since 1988.
He also has been the team's inspirational leader. Te'o had one of his best games of the season against Michigan State, just days after his girlfriend and grandmother died hours apart. He had 12 tackles, one for a loss, and broke up two passes in the win against Michigan State. A week later, on the day his girlfriend was buried, he had eight tackles and two interceptions against Michigan in a 13-6 win.
He finished the regular season with 103 tackles and 7 interceptions -- a school record for a linebacker. He said winning the Heisman would be an honor for his teammates as well.
"Without my team, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate. If we weren't 12-0, I wouldn't be a Heisman candidate," he said.
He said he hasn't spent much time thinking about the Heisman, though, saying his focus this week has been on resting and thinking about his remaining time at Notre Dame before he graduates next month.
"All I'm thinking about is the time I have left here at school with my peers and 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 it's come to an end, a beautiful end."
Te'o said this season is proof that God answers prayers.
"If he didn't answer prayers I wouldn't be here," he said. "I wouldn't have came here. I definitely wouldn't have come back for my senior year. I wouldn't have done a lot of things I've done in the past. Because I pray and because he does answer prayers is the reason I'm standing here today."
Te'o was speaking at a news conference Thursday where he was presented with the Awards and Recognition Association's Sportsmanship Award. He will be traveling the nation next week for various award shows. He is a finalist for the Maxwell (best all-around player), Bednarik (defensive player of the year), Butkus (top linebacker) and Lott (defensive player having the biggest impact) awards.
Te'o said he has no idea what his schedule next week looks like.
"I just go where I'm told," he said.
Te'o said he'll watch the SEC championship game between No. 3 Georgia and No. 2 Alabama that will decide who will be Notre Dame's opponent in the BCS title game, but won't be rooting for either team. He said he's just excited to see who the Irish will play.
"I'll enjoy it as a fan and as a future opponent," Te'o said. "Just watching them and how they work and tendencies. My main thing is finding out who we're going to play."