Manti Te'o chooses Notre Dame


POSTED: Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Manti Te’o took a deep breath before a crowded room, TV cameras pointing at him, three hats resting on his table.

The two-time Star-Bulletin defensive player of the year then did the unexpected.  He put on a green-and-black hat. Problem is, for diehard Hawaii fans, the letters on the hat weren’t ‘UH.’ Instead, they were ‘ND’ with a bold ‘IRISH’ right below.

The Punahou linebacker’s decision to pick the Irish over USC and UCLA was a stunner at this morning’s press conference, hosted by Pacific Islands Athletic Alliance and Mayor Mufi Hannemann.

The imprint of this year’s graduating class could be most felt at UH, which claimed 10 signees from the press conference. That’s a good number, even with the defections of Kimo Makaula (Washington) and Wade Keliikipi (Oregon).

Aulola Tonga, Kahuku’s all-state safety, was expected to sign with the Warriors at a 10 a.m. press conference at the school’s gym.

Some of UH’s signees flew thousands of miles to seal their deals. Corey Nielsen of Gahr High School (Calif.) was right there in the second row with his future teammates.

“I wanted to sign with my family — everyone here,” said Nelson, who was honored as an Old Spice player of the year.

Nielsen chatted with Kailua guard Chauncy Winchester-Makainai, who committed to UH early and never wavered. In fact, the whole procedure was somewhat dull for Winchester-Makainai. Only one thought prevailed for him during the press conference.

“When do I start practice? I want to work hard and get a starting spot — try and get a starting spot,” he said.

Another future Warrior quarterback, Cayman Shutter of Punahou, is already getting his feet in Manoa soil.

“I already feel like part of the family ‘cause I’ve been out there throwing with the guys in 7-on-7s,” said Shutter, who helped Punahou win its first state title.

Early UH commit Billy Ray Stutzmann was beaming in his UH cap.

“I kind of like the spotlight, so this is a fun experience,” he said. “We’ve been out there three times a week (at UH’s practice field), just learning the plays, getting to know the guys. It’s fun being out there.”;

The other signees to UH who were at the press conference were cornerback Kalani Brackenridge (Kapolei), defensive ends Veni Manu (Mililani) and Marcus Malepeai (Radford), offensive linemen Benson Ma‘afala (Mililani) and Jordan Loeffler (Hilo) and outside linebacker Chad Lopati.

An early-season knee injury derailed what had been a magnificent start for Lopati, who began the year at defensive end and finished at linebacker. If he gets healthy, he could become a big playmaker.

“Hopefully, I can contribute as soon as possible. Get in the weight room and get all my strength back, keep going to rehab,” Lopati said.

Kapolei offensive lineman Stan Hasiak settled back on UCLA after flirting with Cal. He’ll join Punahou running back/receiver Dalton Hilliard with the Bruins.

“Usually, your gut choice is the right one,” Hasiak said, referring to his initial commitment to UCLA.

Hilliard was glad to see Hasiak wearing a Bruins hat.

“We went on the visit together in October. I didn’t want to bother him at all. The pressure is part of the recruiting game,” Hilliard said. “I knew he’d do what’s best for him.”;

Another athlete who had second thoughts was Kapolei linebacker/running back Simione Vehikite, who settled on USC after considering a visit last week to Ohio State. As of this morning, even after the press conference, Washington was still pushing hard to land the 6-1, 245-pound bruiser.

“I thought about it and it just came to me,” he said of USC.

Vehikite was happy to see Te’o select the Irish.

“I’m glad he went to Notre Dame,” he said. “I want to play against him.”;

Keliikipi was an early commit to UH, but is happy with his reversal.

“It’s a fresh start. It’s a new opportunity for me,” the defensive tackle said. “UH gave me a good opportunity, but I chose Oregon for personal reasons, to not be dependent on my parents, to develop myself as an individual.”;

Loeffler, the UH recruit, spent some time talking with Baldwin defensive ends Mana Rosa and Jordan Puu Robinson. Rosa signed, as expected, with Oregon State, while Robinson signed with Washington State.

Chances are that Loeffler and Robinson will bang heads on the field at some point.

“I’m looking real forward to it,” Robinson said.

Loeffler’s enthusiasm was contagious.

“I’m one of only three or four players from the Big Island who’s signing. The excitement is just starting for me,” Loeffler said.

Te’o, meanwhile handled more than a dozen interviews with media as he always does, with ease.

“I made my decision at 5 in the morning. I feel in my heart, Notre Dame is the right place. I want to make Hawaii proud,” he said.

“You can’t beat Charlie Weis. He’s great, character-wise, a great man, just down-to-earth and realistic. He’s the only coach to tell me, if you don’t want to make a difference, don’t come here. If you’re not about academics, don’t come here.”

Te’o figures to have a shot at major playing time with the graduation of linebacker Maurice Crum Jr.

“They lost their main man,” Te’o said. “I know I have to work for it.”;

One question mark that emerged from the press conference is on Punahou’s record-breaking receiver, Robby Toma, who did not sign a letter. Toma had committed to UCLA in October, but did not wear a Bruins cap during the press conference and didn’t fax a letter to any school.

Toma, who caught 85 passes for 1,388 yards and 18 touchdowns, also has an offer from Notre Dame. In addition, he and Te’o are neighbors and best friends.