INDIANAPOLIS — Linebacker Manti Te’o is scheduled to speak to reporters Saturday at the scouting combine, another step in the former Notre Dame star’s attempt to restore his public image after the highly publicized hoax that has left his status as a top NFL draft prospect in doubt.
The spotlight on Te’o at this NFL scouting combine is intense after the revelation that his moving story about dealing with the heartbreak of his late girlfriend’s illness and death turned out to be untrue and that the girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, never existed. Te’o has denied involvement and has said he was the victim of a cruel hoax.
“We’ll bring him in,” New York Giants General Manager Jerry Reese said Saturday. “We’ll let him explain that situation for us. I think there’s people with a lot more issues than this issue. We’re more interested in what kind of football player he is, more than anything else. These things get blown out of proportion a little bit. But we’ll investigate it and see where it goes.…We put it all in the hopper and we come out with this is what this guy is, this is where he should be on our [draft] board. This situation is no different than anybody else.”
The Te’o revelations generated headlines nationwide and were everywhere to be seen on television for a time. He did a nationally televised interview with Katie Couric but otherwise has maintained a relatively low public profile more recently while training for the scouting combine.
There are other factors that complicate his draft status. He plays a position, inside linebacker, that has become somewhat devalued as the NFL has developed increasingly into a pass-first league. His performance in Notre Dame’s loss to Alabama in the national championship game was sharply criticized.
It is unclear if his draft stock has plummeted and, if so, by how much. So his performance at this combine, both in on-field drills and in off-field interviews with individual teams, will be closely scrutinized, perhaps more so than with any other player in recent combine memory.
“We’re going to find out if he can handle the media or not,” Minnesota Vikings General Manager Rick Spielman said earlier in the combine. “I’m sure he’s going to be up at this podium one day and people will have some questions for him. But he’s getting a lot of experience in handling the media scrutiny per se. We’ll have him in our room. We’re going to spend a lot of time with him because he’s a very talented prospect. People have asked why he didn’t play so good in the Alabama game. I don’t know the answer to that. But I’m sure there will be a lot of questions thrown his way. But from the view of the overall big picture, he is a very talented football player.”
Spielman said he would pay attention to how Te’o does in front of the media.
“We’ll watch that,” Spielman said. “I think that’s a very valuable part of the process in handling media when they have to talk in front of you guys. It’s not a be-all, end-all decision-maker. But we can tell if this guy needs some polish or technique, if we do draft this guy, on how to handle the media, or this guy is pretty polished. One thing we’ve done this year, too, is we’ve done a lot of digging on social media and have a pretty in-depth picture of these players that are involved or not involved in social media.”
Carolina Panthers Coach Ron Rivera said earlier in the combine he didn’t think the controversy would have a pronounced effect on Te’o’s draft status.
“If he can handle that distraction and still be able to perform on the football field, I really don’t think it makes that much of a difference,” Rivera said. “Whatever happened is a set of circumstances that only he really knows what it was all about. We’ll talk about it. We’ll find out about it. The bottom line is, is he a good person and can he play football? That’s probably the most important thing that he’ll have to answer. I don’t think it’s going to hurt his draft stock. He’s coming here to improve his draft stock. I do think he’s a heck of a football player and I think he’s got a bright future in this league.”