In ESPN's latest Heisman Watch, Manti Te'o sits eighth, ahead of Oregon running back Kenjon Barner and USC quarterback Matt Barkley, among others. But in coach Brian Kelly's mind, Notre Dame's star inside linebacker should be closer to the top.
"What is the definition of a Heisman Trophy candidate?" Kelly asked rhetorically on Tuesday. "If you go with he has to be a quarterback or an offensive player, well, I don't think he plays on offense. But if you're looking for one of the best, if not the best college football players that impacts your program look, if you said it was the MVP, does it have to be an offensive player MVP? Sure. He's got to have some offensive numbers or statistics.
"But you're also judged by how you impact your team and what you do on the defensive side of the ball. So Heisman Trophy, MVP, top collegiate player, we think he fits those categories."
Kelly's known as an offense-first guy, a reputation he built while his Cincinnati teams torched Big East defenses. But he's said since coming to Notre Dame that the Irish need a stout defense to win, and Te'o's led that charge this year as the Irish surged to 4-0.
It's still early, and Te'o's chances are slim for the reasons Kelly discussed -- it's mainly an offensive award. Charles Woodson was the last defensive player to win the Heisman, although he played a significant role as a punt returner for Michigan in the late 90s. Before him, defensive ends Leon Hart (1949, Notre Dame) and Larry Kelley (1936, Yale) were the only two other non-offensive players to garner the award.
So Te'o already is an outside shot, and when you consider the three guys leading the Heisman watch -- West Virginia, Florida State and Kansas State quarterbacks Geno Smith, E.J. Manuel and Collin Klein -- there may not be an opening for an inside linebacker.
But perhaps if Te'o continues to lead a defense that remains one of the best in the nation, he'll at least be rewarded with a trip to New York for the ceremony.
Bye week allows Te'o to get closure
With Notre Dame off last weekend, Te'o was able to return home with fellow Hawaii native Robby Toma about two weeks after the deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend.
Te'o could've gone to Hawaii and been with his family the week of Notre Dame's game against Michigan State, but opted to stay with his team and play the next two weeks. Te'o totaled 20 tackles and picked off two passes against Michigan State and Michigan, leading a defense that allowed just nine points in those two games.
"Any time you get a chance to be around family at that time, there is probably some closure to it which allows you to continue on in the grieving process," Kelly said. "So I think it's just another step for Manti, and Robby being there, obviously, close to the family. I think they were able to bring some closure and move on to the next challenge."
In the kitchen
Both Kelly and offensive coordinator Chuck Martin hinted quarterback Everett Golson had a lot of his plate leading up to his rough performance against Michigan, and the Notre Dame quarterback hasn't been made available to the media during the week in nearly a month.
With that in mind, Kelly said Golson hasn't been walled off because of concerns about prying questions into the team's quarterback dynamic.
"I think he's got a very difficult schedule this year," Kelly said. "We've had a hard time managing him out of practice, getting something to eat, all of those things. He's got a really difficult schedule. The last few weeks have been heavy because we're getting close to midterms. So a lot of those factors."
"We're not trying to hide him. But yet on the other hand, I'm not going to make him available to you every day as well because he's got so much going on being the quarterback and a freshman at Notre Dame."
Kelly's liked to discuss his team's quarterback situation in baseball terms, calling Golson his starter and Tommy Rees his reliever. But with regards to Golson's development, maybe Kelly switched the channel from MLB Network to the Food Channel.
"It's work in progress," Kelly said. "An analogy that I like to use is he's still cooking. We've taken him out of the oven. He's still learning all of the things that are not necessarily visible from game film. He's still learning how to effectively communicate, and how he's able to lead, and all of those things."
That discussion of Golson doesn't sound like one that's going on among many top-10 teams. NBC Sports' Keith Arnold had a good read addressing the Golson-Rees dynamic, wondering how much longer the Irish can actually stick with Golson's development if the Irish keep winning as the season goes on.
It's definitely something to chew on as Notre Dame barrels toward matchups against top defenses in Stanford and BYU, and arguably its most intimidating road environment at Oklahoma.