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Te'o says he doesn't 'understand' how hoax hurts

3:18 PM, Feb 19, 2013   |    comments
Manti Te'o (Getty Images)
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BRADENTON, Fla. -- When the NFL's scouting combine gets underway in Indianapolis on Wednesday, Manti Te'o figures to be the center of attention for reasons few could have imagined a month and a half ago when the college football season came to a close.

In an exclusive interview with USA TODAY Sports on Monday afternoon, the former Notre Dame linebacker confided that he doesn't believe his now infamous scandal involving a fake online girlfriend will affect his stock in the April 25-27 draft.

The Heisman Trophy runner-up's belief that he remains a first-round pick may be put to the test under the intense scrutiny he is about to face from 32 team executives during 15-minute interview sessions beginning Wednesday night.

"I have to just go out there and perform and all that other stuff is behind me," he told USA TODAY Sports between workouts at IMG Academy Monday. "What I did on the field is what I did on the field. I don't think what I did with this whole situation, I don't understand how it takes away from what I did on the field.

"As far as my stock dropping or rising, that's not up to me. The only thing I have to do is just do well, run fast, just be myself, be quick."

Te'o says he shut down his Twitter account Feb. 5, and admits he's not sure if he's going to return to social media.

"It's been a distraction for me," he said, "so I needed to get rid of it."

He maintains that he was victimized by the growing trend known as "Catfishing" after a Jan. 16 Deadspin report revealed that Te'o's girlfriend, Lennay Kekua never existed.

The Laie, Hawaii, native expressed few regrets with his handling of the situation.

"No, just be more honest," he said. "I didn't do anything illegal. I didn't break any rules, I didn't hurt anybody. I just wasn't very forthcoming, as forthcoming as I should have been but in that, I didn't do anything wrong.

"I have to just be myself. For me, the greatest fault would be to tell somebody something I'm not.

"And when it's time to do the interviews, just be myself and everything will fall into place."

NFL Network analyst Charles Davis believes it may not be that simple for Te'o.

"He's going to have to run the gauntlet at the combine," Davis said . "Because in those 15-minute meetings, teams are going to smoke him over pretty well. Probably more so to see how he holds up.

"Plain and simple, he got punked. ... It's a societal problem. We're seeing it in Manti Te'o, who is a kid. "Teams are going to make sure they have it right."

Question that NFL teams will try to determine in the next week and draft experts will try to ferret out in the next two months remains the same: How high will Te'o go?

"Teams will be comforted by his passion," NFLDraftScout.com senior analyst Rob Rang said. "Anybody I've ever talked to about him says he's just naïve. "He's a good football player. I still have him going in the first round -- to Baltimore (at pick No. 32)."

'I STAY OUT OF SOCIAL MEDIA'

Te'o and his fellow IMG Academy workout partners received some pre-combine media coaching from former Olympic track and field star Lewis Johnson, now with NBC.

"He said, 'Just be honest. Just never be ashamed to be yourself," Te'o said recalling Johnson's advise.

"It's what's so unfortunate the people who have gone through pain like that -- Don't be ashamed. Don't be so embarrassed. That's happened to a lot of people."

PHOTOS: MANTI TE'O'S CAREER HIGHLIGHTS

Florida State offensive tackle Menelik Watson, one of those who's training in Florida along side Te'o, says he was targeted by a similar scheme several years ago.

"It happened to me when I was 16 years old," Watson said. "I used to get people from neighboring schools, I remember on two occasions made fake profiles and started talking to me.

"There's a lot of people out there who are just out to get you for whatever reason, maybe their life is so boring, it's more like a sick joke. That's why I stay out of social media."

JUDGED ON THE FIELD

Te'o said he is not currently dating anyone. But says he's refused to allow the hoax to change him.

"The worst thing I could do in this whole situation is change who I am that has brought me to this point," he said."My trust in people is the same. I'm just more cautious. "

Bottom line is Te'o expects to be judged by what he did in leading Notre Dame to its first undefeated season in decades.

"I just want them to know, whoever picks me just let them know that you're choosing someone who loves the game," Te'o said. "I want to be the best at it.

"It's because of my work ethic that I've come this far."

(USA Today)

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