- Matt Fortuna, ESPN Staff Writer
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The timeline of events that have become public in the two weeks since it was revealed that Manti Te'o's dead girlfriend never actually existed align with everything Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly knew about his star linebacker's situation.
Speaking with reporters on a conference call Tuesday morning for the first time since the Fighting Irish's Jan. 7 loss to Alabama, Kelly defended Te'o and said he did not notice a difference in the senior leading up to the Discover BCS National Championship Game.
"I didn't sense it, really," Kelly said. "Manti's a young man that continues to lead, and you don't really see him, because obviously he went through a tough time during the year and we didn't really see anything there that would've set off an alarm that he was under so much pressure concerning the situation. I just didn't see it as we practiced leading into the game."
Te'o, one of two captains of a defense that entered the title game as the nation's No. 1 scoring unit, missed a number of tackles in an uncharacteristic performance during which the Crimson Tide piled up 529 yards of offense in a 42-14 win.
Kelly acknowledged Te'o wasn't at the top his game against Alabama.
"Hindsight is 20/20. I didn't think going into the game that he was affected by it. But he didn't play his best," Kelly said. "Alabama had something to do with that as well, clearly. But I really don't know. It's a lot to weigh on the shoulders of somebody. I think we could make a leap that maybe it did, but I think Manti would know for sure."
Kelly said he was not involved in the discussions on how Notre Dame should react to the situation publicly as he and others around the program became aware that the woman portraying herself as "Lennay Kekua" did not actually exist. Kelly said he was more focused on preparing Notre Dame for the Crimson Tide.
"That wasn't my first concern," Kelly said. "My first concern was to find out what was going on. I was really concerned. It sounded, obviously, we all heard the story -- it just sounded so crazy that the first thing that I wanted to do was make sure that we got the right people on top of this immediately. And got a hold of my athletic director and our vice president for communications, and that was really my first thought: Let's find out what the heck's going on here. Because you get a phone call in the middle of the night, and the first thing is there's some lady that's not in fact dead. You don't know what to think. It was try to get dialogue and make sure that we begin to find out what happened here. That was my first thought.
"As we went on in the process, our athletic director Jack Swarbrick was, as you know, a center in it and he was putting together all the pieces over a period of time. And I don't think that any of us were motivated by [the thought], 'We don't want this to be a news story.' We were going to find out what the facts were."
Te'o won a record seven individual national awards this season, leading Notre Dame to its first undefeated regular season in 24 years. A consensus All-American, he finished the season with 113 total tackles, seven interceptions and two fumble recoveries, and the 321 first-place votes and 1,706 points he garnered in the Heisman Trophy voting were the most ever by a player that participated only on defense.
Last season, Te'o passed up early entry into the NFL draft to return for his senior year, which seemingly became a storybook tale as he overcame the September deaths of his grandmother and a woman he said was his girlfriend.
While Te'o has found himself at the center of the nation's attention since it was revealed that Kekua never actually existed -- and while he and his school have claimed that the entire episode was a hoax played on him -- Kelly says the legacy of a linebacker who leaves Notre Dame as its third most proficient tackler (437) will be secure as he moves on to the NFL and as the program builds off its renaissance 2012 campaign.
"I think Manti will be remembered as a great leader of our football team, on an undefeated team at Notre Dame," Kelly said. "He showed the way for how to be a great teammate: his work ethic, his commitment, all those things. And for me, he'll be, in my eyes, one of the very great teammates that I've ever had in 22 years of coaching. He just, he was special to coach. And he did all the things that I think great players have to do on a day-to-day basis. And we're going to continue to hold him in that type of esteem."