San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o answers questions after… (Denis Poroy / Associated…)
SAN DIEGO — Two young players. Two sides of the football. Two corners of the country.
One overriding question:
Is there a place for each of them in the NFL?
On the same day quarterback Tim Tebow made his debut with the New England Patriots, San Diego's Manti Te'o stepped to the lectern Tuesday, the first day of mini-camp, and spoke to reporters for the first time in weeks.
The Chargers' new regime — led by Coach Mike McCoy and General Manager Tom Telesco — had made Te'o off limits to the media, reasoning the controversial second-round pick would be best served by quietly burying his nose in the playbook.
"The plan was for me to focus on football, focus on me getting my head in the playbook and just trying to make that transition as quickly as possible," said Te'o, making his first public comments since May 10 during rookie mini-camp. "I definitely have reaped the benefits of that."
Te'o and Tebow, pop-culture celebrities, are friendly, eager and astoundingly polarizing. Some people think they can play. Some people think they are overmatched.
Whereas Tebow is looking to restart his career, learning at the elbow of Tom Brady, Te'o is ready to turn the page on the controversial ending to his decorated career at Notre Dame. Although his image was sullied by a bizarre hoax involving a fake dead girlfriend, the vast majority of questions Tuesday concerned football.
"When we're out on the football field, everything else doesn't matter," he said. "Thankfully for me, I'm surrounded by a bunch of teammates who have really pushed me to be better. All they care about is that No. 50 is working his butt off. I'll take care of the work ethic part, and for them, they just make sure that I'm going in the right direction."
Still, there are unanswered questions — at least outside the team — after his poor play in the national championship game against Alabama and his unimpressive performance at the scouting combine.
His new teammates don't seem concerned at all, however, insisting he doesn't play like a rookie.
"I don't care what anybody says, I like him as a football player," tight end Antonio Gates said. "His instincts are phenomenal. No matter what, he's never out of position. Even if I make a move or make a catch on him, he's there to make a tackle. For a young guy, I'm like, wow, that's pretty good. That's a catch-tackle. He's not going to do anything but grow."
New Chargers defensive end Dwight Freeney praised Te'o's instincts too, and downplayed the significance of the linebacker's 4.82-second 40-yard dash at the combine.
"You shouldn't put so much weight on numbers from the combine," Freeney said. "Those are pretty, those are great. But it comes down to one thing — making plays on the field, who makes them and who doesn't. He makes a lot of plays.
"You can have [sprinter] Usain Bolt run a 40-yard dash. Does that mean he'll make a great NFL player? No, he may not. He might be the fastest guy on the field, but he might run the wrong direction. Toughness, durability, instincts, football IQ, that's what separates guys. You think an eight-year linebacker in the league runs a 4.5? That's all instincts, all IQ, all knowing where the play's going to be before it happens."
Unlike Tebow, who signed a two-year deal with no guaranteed money and presumably has no assurances he'll make New England's final 53-man roster, Te'o is running with the first-team defense and is expected to be a starter. He said he's excited by the challenge of being a three-down linebacker — meaning he would stay on the field in passing situations — and has looked back at his wobbly performance in the 42-14 loss to Alabama.
"Honestly, I've only gone back [and watched it] once," he said. "That kind of stuff you don't want to see too much. But definitely you learn more from your losses than you do from your wins. For me, the biggest thing I could learn from that game is to take each play for each play. Don't worry about a series. Don't worry about, 'Man, we need to get a three-and-out.' Take advantage of each play that you're out there."
Gates saw that blowout, and how Te'o played in it doesn't concern him. He thinks the linebacker's performance in the games before that finale — a season in which he finished second in Heisman Trophy voting — is more indicative of the NFL player he will be.
"That was just one game," Gates said. "You can't use that to judge his whole career. Alabama made everybody look bad. Alabama, that's like a professional team."
Of course, he now will be facing a professional opponent every week, and Te'o is determined to prove he belongs. So far, he does.
Maybe unwittingly, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers paid Te'o the biggest compliment of the day, something the linebacker surely hasn't heard in a while:
"He's one of the guys."