Te'o wins two honors, named Heisman finalist as awards tour begins

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Te'o wins two honors, named Heisman finalist as awards tour begins

Manti Te'o can finally add New York to his travel itinerary.

Notre Dame's senior linebacker will extend his awards tour through Saturday, when he'll attend the Heisman Trophy presentation ceremony in Times Square. Te'o will be joined by Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and Kansas State quarterback Collin Klein.

Most figure Manziel will win the honor, which a defensive player hasn't won since 1997. But having a defensive player who didn't have an impact on be named a finalist for the award is extremely rare -- Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh finished fourth in 2009 -- and Te'o will finish no lower than third in this year's balloting.

Te'o is Notre Dame's first Heisman Trophy finalist since Brady Quinn, who finished third in 2006 and fourth in 2005. Reggie Brooks finished fifth in 1992, Rocket Ismail was second in 1990 and Tony Rice was fourth in 1989, among recent Irish finalists. Tim Brown was the last Notre Dame player to win the Heisman, with that honor coming in 1987. The school's other winners are John Huarte (1964), Paul Hornung (1956), John Lattner (1953), Leon Hart (1949), John Lujack (1947) and Angelo Bertelli (1943).

While Te'o will find out his Heisman fate Saturday night, the linebacker took home two prestigious honors Monday, winning the Butkus Award (nation's best linebacker) and Nagurski Trophy (top defensive player).

"It's definitely a great accomplishment for me," Te'o said of winning the Nagurski Trophy. "I've ways wanted to be the best. For this to happen helps me to know I'm heading in the right direction. The formula is the same: Hard work leads to success as long as I keep doing it."

All season, though, Te'o hasn't been concerned with personal awards, at least compared to his goal of reaching a national championship that certainly seemed lofty three months ago. But with success comes accolades, especially for a player identified by most as the heart and soul of Notre Dame's resurgence.

Te'o's voyage on the awards circuit took him to Charlotte on Monday, and he'll be in Houston and New York later in the week as well. That means Te'o won't be with his teammates when they begin practicing Friday for the BCS Championship.

"I said listen, this week you gotta write it off. It's not going to be a football week for you," coach Brian Kelly said. "When you have an undefeated football team and a great player, awards generally follow you and this week he's going to do the best he can to work out in the hotels and focus on these postseason awards."

Kelly added Te'o is "burnt out" by the attention of the awards circuit that'll zip him across the country over the next week. His biggest concern, though, has been conditioning and staying in shape, as he relayed last week.

"I asked coach Kelly to make sure that there's a gym in whatever place we stay so when I come back I'm not D-lineman," Te'o said. "That's definitely something that I'll do myself to make sure I stay in shape."

The Butkus Award is also given to a high school player, and Irish commit Jaylon Smith (Ft. Wayne, Ind.) garnered the honor.

Smith, rated as the nation's top linebacker and third-best prep player by Rivals.com, is the jewel of Notre Dame's 2013 recruiting class. And not to lop pressure on Smith, but the last high school recipient of the Butkus Award was Te'o.

In other awards news, Braxston Cave was named a finalist for the Rimington Award (nation's top center) and Kelly was named a finalist for the Eddie Robinson Award (nation's top coach).

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Bears DL Akiem Hicks making the most of a chance the Saints never gave him

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Living well is indeed the best revenge, and sometimes nothing feels sweeter than proving doubters wrong. Akiem Hicks is savoring that exact feeling.

When the New Orleans Saints made Hicks their third-round pick in the 2013 draft, they typecast their big (6-5, 318 pounds) young defensive lineman as a one-trick pony.

“There were people in New Orleans that said, ‘You can’t rush the passer,’” Hicks recalled after the Bears’ win Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers. “They told me from my rookie year, ‘You’re going to be a run-stopper.’”

This despite Hicks collecting 6.5 sacks and 3 pass breakups as a senior at Regina in Canada. The Saints forced Hicks into the slot they’d decided he fit – nose tackle – then eventually grew disenchanted with him and traded him to New England last year – where he collect 3 sacks in spot duty.

Interestingly, Bears GM Ryan Pace was part of the Saints’ personnel operation. Whether Pace agreed with coaches’ handling of Hicks then isn’t known, but when Pace had the chance to bring Hicks to Chicago for a role different than the one the Saints forced Hicks into, Pace made it happen.

Pace likely saw those New England sacks as a foreshadowing or a sign that the New Orleans staff had miscast Hicks. The Bears defensive end now is under consideration for NFC defensive player of the week after his 10-tackle performance against San Francisco. Signing with the Bears last March 13 as a free agent was the career break Hicks has craved. For him it was a career lifeline.

“They have given me the ability to go rush the passer,” Hicks said. “So I love this organization – [GM] Ryan Pace, coach Fox, Vic [Fangio, defensive coordinator] – for just giving a guy the capability to put it out there and do what you feel like you can do.”

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Hicks has been showing what he can do, to quarterbacks. For him the best part of win over the 49ers was the two third-quarter sacks of 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.

Those sacks gave the massive lineman, who the Saints said couldn’t rush the passer, 6 sacks for the season – more than any member of the Saints defense this season. It has been a classic instance of putting a player in position to maximize his skills, not jam someone into a bad fit.

“Akiem has been in a couple of different types of packages before with New Orleans and New England,” said coach John Fox. The Patriots switched from a long-time 3-4 scheme to a 4-3 but “we’re more of a New England-type style. But we’re playing him more at end; he played mostly a nose tackle [in New Orleans]. He’s fit really well for us as far as his physical stature.

"But he does have pass rush ability. It shows a little about his athleticism. So he’s got a combination of both.”

That “combination” has been allowed to flourish at a new level, and the Bears’ plan for Hicks was the foundation of why he wanted to sign in Chicago as a free agent. The Bears do not play their defensive linemen in a clear one-gap, get-upfield-fast scheme tailored to speed players. Nor do they play a classic two-gap, linemen-control-blockers scheme typically built on three massive space-eaters on the defensive line.

They play what one player has called a “gap and a half” system, which requires being stout as well as nimble.

One Hicks rush on Kaepernick featured a deft spin move out of a block, not the norm for 336-pound linemen. He got one sack with a quick slide out of a double-team.

“I’m not freelancing,” Hicks said. “But I’m rushing ‘fast.’ There’s a portion of the defense where you have the [run] responsibility and don’t have the freedom or liberty [to rush]. It’s a great system for me and I love what they’ve let me do.”