Nationals

Te'o leads Irish defense, key to perfect season

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Te'o leads Irish defense, key to perfect season

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) If Manti Te'o's career at Notre Dame has seemed like something straight out of a Hollywood script, perhaps it's fitting the linebacker is cast as an underdog in the final two scenes of his collegiate career.

First, he will try to become the first defense-only player to win the Heisman Trophy, going up against a couple of quarterbacks Saturday night in Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Kansas State's Collin Klein. Next month, he will lead the top-ranked Fighting Irish against defending champion Alabama in the BCS championship game as Notre Dame tries to become the first team since BYU in 1984 to start a season unranked and win it all.

Te'o still finds it all a bit hard to believe.

``It's something that I never - I don't think anybody could anticipate or expect. It's always a goal to be the best, to be the best you can be, and I just - I didn't think that it would be to this magnitude,'' he said. "I'm just very grateful to be in this situation and to represent my team.''

Te'o has represented the Irish amazingly well, showing courage in playing his best game of the season just days after both his girlfriend and grandmother died a few hours apart. He never missed practice and made a season-high 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a fumble recovery in a 20-3 victory over then-No. 10 Michigan State.

A week later, on the day his girlfriend was buried, Te'o had two interceptions, leading to a touchdown and a field goal, and had two more quarterback hurries that led to interceptions in a 13-6 win over Michigan as many Irish fans wore leis to show their support for the star who grew up in Hawaii.

The biggest item missing from Te'o's resume from the perspective of some Heisman Trophy voters might be that he's never passed or run for a touchdown, just about a prerequisite for winners. He has plenty of other impressive numbers, though. His seven interceptions are the most ever by a Notre Dame linebacker and the most by any linebacker since Georgia's Tony Taylor had that many in 2006. Te'o also has 103 tackles.

If Thursday night's Home Depot College Football Awards show is any indication of how the Heisman voting will go, Te'o stands a strong chance of hoisting the iconic trophy in New York. He collected three more awards at Disney World, including the Maxwell, which is given to the nation's most outstanding player. He has picked up six big national honors since the end of the regular season (Bednarik Award, Butkus Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy, Lombardi Award and Walter Camp national player of the year award).

His coaches and teammates, though, say the numbers don't begin to tell the story of Te'o. He has been the face and heartbeat of not only the Notre Dame defense but the entire team that kept surprising naysayers, from winning at Oklahoma to those stirring goal-line stands against Stanford and Southern California.

``If a guy like Manti isn't going to win the Heisman they should just make it an offensive award and just give it to the offensive player every year and cut to the chase,'' coach Brian Kelly said. ``He is the backbone of a 12-0 football team that has proven itself each and every week.''

The only defensive player to win the trophy was Michigan cornerback Charles Woodson in 1997. But Woodson also played some wide receiver and returned punts.

Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops said he's never understood why defensive players don't win the award and believes Te'o is deserving.

``They're noted for their defense and he's the quarterback of the defense,'' Stoops said. ``He's been the guy all year. He's been their guy and I don't think there's any question he's a guy that should have a great opportunity to win it.''

Te'o showed his leadership skills before the Oklahoma game. Quarterback Everett Golson had struggled in a big game against Michigan and Te'o asked Kelly if he could talk to Golson before the game. Kelly didn't ask Te'o what he wanted to say.

``Because it's really not important for me what Manti is talking about with the quarterback because I know what he's going to say is all positive. But Everett got up with a big smile on his face. I think it set him at ease,'' Kelly said. ``I think he impacts everybody on our football team.''

With seven Heisman winners, Notre Dame has had some unconventional winners. Paul Hornung, who played quarterback, halfback and safety, is the only Heisman winner to play for a losing team. The Irish were 2-8 when he won in 1956. Quarterback John Huarte won in 1964 while leading the Irish to a 9-1 record a season after failing to letter for a 2-7 squad.

The most compelling part of Teo's story, though, is his journey. How after three mostly mediocre seasons for the team, he helped turn this season into one Irish fans will talk about for years.

The turning point may have actually come last season. After a 31-17 loss to USC last October, Kelly was asked if getting players to play like he wants at Notre Dame was a harder sell than at other schools. Kelly replied: ``You can see the players that I recruited here. You know who they are. We've had one class of recruiting, kids that I've had my hand on. The other guys here are coming along, but it's a process. It can't happen overnight. They're getting there. They're making good progress.''

That upset some players, with Te'o tweeting: ``Playin for my bros and that's it!!!!''

Kelly apologized for his remarks.

``I think anytime in a family there are going to be some disagreements,'' Kelly said. ``Maybe the way I did it wasn't the appropriate way. But I think it was pretty clear that we understood each other in terms of what my expectations were. I just wish I handled it better.''

The Irish came together after that, with Te'o the catalyst as the Irish won four of their next five.

The fact that a Mormon from Hawaii who hates cold weather wound up at a Roman Catholic university in a northern Indiana city that averages more than 70 inches of snow a year seems unlikely, especially considering he was such a big fan of archrival USC growing up that he was in tears when the Irish nearly upset the Trojans in 2005.

Te'o wore shorts and flip-flops for his campus visit during a blustery November weekend when some in the crowd threw snowballs at Irish players during an embarrassing 24-23 loss to Syracuse, the first eight-loss team to ever beat the Irish.

Te'o has said the game didn't play a role in his decision. What did, though, was his English teacher showing the movie ``Dead Poets Society'' on the eve of signing day in February 2009. Te'o had already decided he was going to USC, but a character in the film struggling with a difficult life choice prompted Te'o to rethink his choice. He prayed, and something told him to go to Notre Dame.

He prayed again following his freshman season about whether to return or go on a Mormon mission. He did the same thing again a year ago when he was deciding whether to enter the NFL draft or return for his senior season.

He believes what has happened to him this season shows the power or prayer.

``I think for anybody who's questioning if God lives, he lives, and I'm an example of that. For those who don't know if he answers your prayers, he does, because he answered mine. If he didn't answer prayers, I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have come here. I definitely wouldn't have come back for my senior year. And I wouldn't have done a lot of things that I've done,'' he said.

Te'o hopes he'll leave a legacy, which he surely will if the Irish beat Alabama next month and win their first national championship since 1988. But the main thing he wants is to be remembered as someone who gave his best.

``If you don't do things to be the best at it, why are you doing it? So I'm just trying to be the best,'' he said. ``Once I leave here, I hope that the impact I've made not only on the football field but in people's lives will forever be remembered.''

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AP Sports Writer Jeff Latzke in Norman, Okla., contributed to this report.

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Nats rookie Juan Soto makes second MLB debut, retroactively hits HR on first-ever MLB at-bat

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Nats rookie Juan Soto makes second MLB debut, retroactively hits HR on first-ever MLB at-bat

The Washington Nationals hosted the New York Yankees to finish a once-suspended game, tied at 3-3 in the sixth inning. Though it seemed like just a makeup, it was anything but for rookie Juan Soto.

It’s true that Soto struck out as a pinch hitter in his first-ever game on May 20. Since then, the 19-year-old has caught fire, batting .312 with five home runs and 12 RBI in 23 games this season.

But the makeup of the suspended game took place on May 15, five days before Soto was called up from Double-A to give the Nats an extra bat. Soto would make his major league debut once again.

Though it’s uncommon for a player to compete in a game prior to his major-league debut, it’s been done before. Barry Bonds hit a go-ahead single in a suspended game that dated a month before his debut. Closer Jeff Reardon threw a scoreless inning and picked up a win in a suspended game nearly two months before his debut, as well.              

After Anthony Rendon hit an opposite-field single in the bottom of the sixth, Soto pinch hit for Matt Adams who has missed the previous two games with a hand injury.                                                  

And Soto, with a chance to change his first career at-bat from a pinch-hit strikeout to anything but, did just that. He turned on a fastball and sent a rocket to right field. Aaron Judge took a few steps before looking up toward the bleachers. The ball landed in the second deck.

Talk about a first career at-bat. A no-doubt, two-run shot to give the Nationals the lead in a game that took place before his first major-league debut.

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Texas A&M big man Robert Williams likes potential fit with Wizards, John Wall

Texas A&M big man Robert Williams likes potential fit with Wizards, John Wall

In terms of the needs on their roster and the guys most likely to be available when they are on the clock at No. 15 in the first round, few players in this draft class seem as obvious a fit with the Washington Wizards more than Robert Williams of Texas A&M. So, it was no surprise that he not only visited them in Washington on Monday, but received the only individual public workout they have held during this year's predraft process.

Williams could be the answer to their longstanding quest for an athletic big man. No need to bring in five other guys for the usual six-player workout when Williams deserves a longer and more extensive look than most prospects they are considering.

The 20-year-old was put through a variety of drills Monday afternoon, just days before the 2018 NBA Draft. He likes the fit with Washington, if that's how things end up sorting out.

"I definitely feel like they could use a big like me, a defensive-style athletic big like me. I definitely see myself fitting here," he said.

Williams is one of the best big men in this year's draft. He is 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds with a 7-5 wingspan. He used that length to dominate in the paint at the college level.

Williams averaged a modest 10.4 points for the Aggies in 2017-18, but also 9.2 rebounds and 2.6 blocks. That was his sophomore year. He averaged 8.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks as a freshman.

He was a shot-blocking force the day he stepped on campus and believes those skills will translate to the professional ranks. In the NBA, Williams believes he can thrive because his defensive versatility will be even more valuable in a day and age where switching is paramount.

"I feel like I can guard all positions. That’s one of my biggest attributes," he said. "It’s just about embracing it, having fun stopping a guard. Once you’re comfortable with it, you can do it."

Williams may adapt to the NBA quickly on the defensive end and that's where the Wizards need help the most. They haven't had a consistent rim-protector in years. Last season, point guard John Wall led the team in blocks per game.

Offense is where the questions lie with Williams. He wasn't a big scorer in college and does not have much of an outside shot. The fact he shot just 47.1 percent from the free throw line this past season suggests he has a lot of work to do before he can stretch the floor.

Williams will need to find a niche offensively, likely as a rim-runner off pick-and-rolls. He sees a lot of potential in a possible pick-and-roll pairing with Wall.

"He’s an elite passer and an elite guard. Coming off a pick-and-roll, you have to pay attention to him as well as have to pay attention to me as well. It’s a win-win situation," Williams said.

Williams believes his offensive game will open up with more space at the NBA level. The Wizards have Wall surrounded by three-point shooters in Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Markieff Morris. Toss Williams into the middle and he could go to work in the paint doing the rest.

If Williams were drafted by the Wizards, he could look at Clint Capela of the Houston Rockets as a model to follow. Like Houston, the Wizards have two All-Star guards. An athletic big man who doesn't need plays run for him could be the perfect complement.

No one needs to tell Williams that, he is well-aware. He said that at nearly every stop during the predraft process Capela's name has come up.

"I knew that’s what you were going to say," Williams said to a reporter (raises hand) who asked about the Capela comparison.

Williams continued to say they are different players and it's not entirely fair to compare them. That exchange showed Williams has an edge to him, sort of like Morris. He's clearly not afraid to be honest when some players would not.

Despite downplaying the comparison, Williams can see what makes Capela successful.

"I’ve watched him. He’s a great player," Williams said. "He is around the right people. He just plays his role. He runs off a lot of screens. He gets up there and does what he has to do."

Williams is gearing up for Thursday's draft and trying to decide who he will walk the stage with, as the NBA has introduced a new tradition of each player walking with two people. He said it will likely be his mother and sister. Perhaps by the end of the night he will also walk that stage wearing a Washington Wizards hat.

For more on Williams, check out our extensive draft profile on him.

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