Te'o's return an early gift for Irish

Merry Christmas, indeed.

Manti Te'o will spend one more year in a Notre Dame uniform. And oh what a gift this is for the Irish for next season.

Te'o's skills are already proven, which is why this decision is a bit of a surprise. He was widely projected as a first-round pick and the No. 2 inside linebacker selected behind Boston College's Luke Kuechly, who beat him out for the Lott IMPACT Trophy Sunday night.

For the Irish, this means a sure-fire leader returns to a defense that is already losing plenty going into next season. The team itself will lack the star power it carried into this season, and it will face a much tougher schedule as well.

Head coach Brian Kelly often referred to Te'o and current captain Harrison Smith as the defensive quarterbacks this season. Smith and at least two other starters in the secondary are gone next season. At least two season-opening starters from the three-man defensive line will not be back, either. Senior Darius Fleming, the Irish's next-best linebacker, will play his final game Dec. 29 against Florida State, too.

Te'o will provide the star power that is missing when Michael Floyd is gone. He will provide a face for the program and a leader for the younger guys to look up to when the Irish visit hostile locations such as East Lansing, Mich., Norman, Okla., or Los Angeles next season.

Te'o will be the first to tell you he's not a rah-rah guy; he'd rather lead by example. He got away from his comfort zone midway through this season and had a sub-par performance in a loss to rival USC, where he initially committed to out of high school. He responded the next week with seven tackles on the first two drives against Navy, finishing the game with 13 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and half a sack.

"Hey, Coach, I hope you don't mind -- I'm just gonna be pretty quiet," Te'o then recalled telling defensive coordinator Bob Diaco before the Navy game. "I'm gonna be humble. I'm not gonna say anything. If I need to say something I will say it, but I'm not gonna yell. I'm not gonna try and get everybody pumped up."

But with one announcement in Newport Beach, Calif., on Sunday night, Te'o did just that. He was scheduled to later board a red-eye flight back to South Bend, Ind., where it may as well be Christmas morning when he returns.