In football, like in life, you're usually either moving downhill or uphill. There's very little in between.
Notre Dame middle linebacker Manti Te'o is definitely a downhill mover. Or so says USC freshman fullback Soma Vainuku, in charge of emulating Te'o in Trojans' scout-team drills this week, and Trojans head coach Lane Kiffin -- and just about everyone else who talks about Te'o for any amount of time, for that matter.
They always bring it up. Te'o, they say, plays football fast, diagnoses plays quickly, and, above all, plays downhill.
So, what exactly does that mean on the field, and what does that mean for USC's game against the talented Te'o and Notre Dame in two days' time?
It means he's going to bring a lot of Trojans down. The junior from Hawaii is averaging just short of 10 tackles per game this season, tied for 21st in the country, and 8.5 tackles for loss, tied for 25th in the country. Both numbers are better than anyone USC has faced this season and, currently, better than anyone it will face in the second half of the year.
He also leads the Irish in sacks with four after posting just one sack a year ago. His overall tackles numbers are slightly off his pace from a year ago, but all the other figures represent significant improvements from his first year in coordinator Bob Diaco's 3-4 system -- or at least it appears so.
"I don't think it's that much different," Kiffin said this week. "I just think it's his second year in the system, even though he's started before. Now he's playing extremely fast. He's off-the-charts physical, downhill, aggressive, and he plays every snap like its third-and-one.
"He's a great player. I wish he was here."
Well, yeah -- he almost was. Everyone expected Te'o to sign with USC until the morning of signing day back in 2009, when he spoke with former Trojans coach Pete Carroll at length on the way to making his announcement that he was attending Notre Dame.
It was the surprise of the year at the time, and the decision's followed Teo throughout his first two-plus years in college. In the past he has admitted to feeling a different combination of excitement and nervousness in the week leading up to Notre Dame's annual game against the Trojans. But he says that feeling is no longer.
"Not anymore," he said this week. "My first two years, I said, OK, this is USC, I almost went there and I grew up a USC fan, so I used to have these kind of emotions mixing in with all the anxiety and excitement.
"But going into this year, I don't have that feeling anymore...It's just another game for me."
Of course, Te'o said the same thing a year ago. USC linebacker Chris Galippo has always admitted that he holds a special place in his game-preparation heart for Notre Dame each year because the Irish recruited him heavily out of high school, even though he was never committed to the Indiana school and never came close to doing so. And he remembers how he was snubbed by former Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis while visiting the school as a high school junior in 2005.
It's unlikely Te'o has erased all those memories from his head. At the time he signed, he said he intended to come to USC up until the night before signing day, when he proceeded to pray and receive what he has since described as a number of signs telling him he should sign with Notre Dame.
He went on to win the permanent starting job in South Bend midway through his freshman season and has started 29 of 31 collegiate games. He's now considered a first-round prospect for next April's NFL draft if he does declare, a ranking that's been boosted so far this season by his leadership of what's been an at-times dominant Fighting Irish defense.
"He's physical, he's smart, he's their best linebacker," says Vainuku, who boasts the exact same height and weight measurements (6-2, 255 pounds) as Te'o. "I think he's probably one of the best linebackers in the NCAA right now."
The only thing missing from Te'o's numbers so far this year is the interceptions, but that's to be expected from an inside linebacker in a 3-4 defense and a guy making as many tackles as he does. Still, that remains the last aspect of his game he has left to prove to NFL scouts to verify his top-30 status.
He's yet to pick a ball off in college, although that is expected at some point. With his size, skills and nature, those things typically come.
"He's obviously got a great nose for the ball," said Galippo, Te'o's counterpart as USC's middle linebacker. "He's the leader of their defense and he makes a ton of plays.
"He's just a downhill player."