ESPN.com - There's little question that junior linebacker Manti Te'o is the leader of the Notre Dame defense, a fact that adds yet another twist to the rivalry between the Trojans and the Irish.
"Te'o is playing fantastic. I wish he was here," USC coach Lane Kiffin said this week.
USC fans who follow recruiting need no reminder of how close Te'o came to wearing a Trojans uniform. He took his official recruiting visit to USC on the weekend before signing day in 2009. Te'o was hosted on that trip by Matt Barkley. The two had become friends during the recruiting process, and when Te'o left Los Angeles he was convinced he would end up at USC.
A few days later on signing day, however, he surprised the recruiting world by announcing that he would be attending Notre Dame. Te'o did this despite being on the phone with USC coach Pete Carroll for the entire hour-plus drive from his home to the signing day ceremony, while most certainly listening to pleas from Carroll about why he should sign with the Trojans.
"I was sold on USC, I grew up a USC fan," Te'o told ESPN.com's Matt Fortuna this week. "I was going to go to USC, then I prayed about it and I was directed here.
"My first two years I said, 'OK, this is USC. I almost went there.' But going into this year I don't have that feeling anymore. I'm happy to play with the guys I'm with so it's just another game for me."
Te'o has been one of the better linebackers in the country this season, notching 59 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. In a rivalry that prides itself on physical football, you have to figure Te'o is going to be in the middle of the action Saturday.
"Te'o is a great player," Trojans fullback Ross Cumming said. "He plays with a downhill mentality. He's a tough, physical guy, but so are we. We have tough, physical guys over here, too."