Zeke Motta

Playmakers Wanted: Zeke Motta


(Note: This is the third in a series of fictional memos from Notre Dame’s No. 1 fan to key players for the 2012 Fighting Irish. The first featured senior wide receiver John Goodman, the second WR Daniel Smith.)


To: Zeke Motta
From: Goldy Domer, #1 Irish Fan
Subject: Your NFL audition season


I feel like the timing couldn’t be better for this letter. With Spring Break coming, you’ll likely head back home to Florida, enjoy some time in the Vero Beach sun, and get to thinking about the days ahead. You’ll probably even dip your toes in the Atlantic. Not to get too poetic, but it’s a little like your time in that wide open pool called the Irish secondary, where you’ve seen your fair share of time. But here’s the thing Zeke, I think you’re ready to dive in head first. Not just the ocean — the water temp is a balmy 73 degrees — but into the secondary. It’s your time now, Zeke.  Some people might worry you’re not quite ready, but I think you’re going to be just fine.

Sometimes us fans forget these things, but you were the man coming out of high school. Turning down Clemson, Florida State and some guy named Urban Meyer to head to South Bend? We ought to have a party just to celebrate that occasion. (Looks like you did.) And while some Irish fans think of you as a forgotten man, I haven’t missed you in action. All us Irish fans remember is the last loss, but when we had safeties dropping like flies in 2010, I saw you flying around out there. Even if it was a learning experience, finishing seventh on the team in tackles is nothing to scoff at, and you were basically the starting safety all season. (Remember that Kirk Cousins INT in the end zone? I hope the NFL scouts do before they take him in the second round…)

While we all focused on Harrison going from the doghouse to the penthouse, some people forgot you’ve had some great moments. Thanks to the internet, we can all watch them, too. (Looks like you’ve got another No.1 Fan, Zeke.) Nobody wants to remember that Champs Sports Bowl, but I remember that scoop and score. And I’ve got a feeling that come spring time and next fall, we’re going to be reading a bunch of articles reminding us how we’ve got another 6-foot-2, 215-pound safety that likes to play the role of a Zeke-seeking missile. (Not bad, right?)

Maybe it just feels like you were the odd-man out last year, but it’s not like this is going to be your first rodeo. You took over 69 percent of the snaps last year on defense — that’s more than Prince Shembo, or Dan Fox, or Big Lou, or Aaron Lynch. Maybe the guys at the BBQ that like to sound like ND football experts or those geniuses on the message boards will think of you as a back-up, but somehow you and Jamoris both spent a whole lot of time out there, with his 573 snaps just 10 more than you played.

Imagine what you two will be able to do together out there. If you don’t see me peeking my head through the gates at spring practice, it’s because I’ll be busy thinking up nicknames for one of the hardest hitting safety duos in recent Irish memory. Motta & Slaughter. Just sounds like a house of pain for opposing wide receivers.

Your second biggest fan,


Evaluating VanGorder’s scheme against the option

ANNAPOLIS, MD - SEPTEMBER 19:  Keenan Reynolds #19 of the Navy Midshipmen rushes for his fifth touchdown in the fourth quarter against the East Carolina Pirates during their 45-21 win on September 19, 2015 in Annapolis, Maryland.  (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)

Notre Dame’s ability to slow down Georgia Tech’s vaunted option attack served as one of the high points to the Irish’s early season success. After spending a considerable amount of offseason energy towards attacking the option and learning more, watching the Irish hold the Yellow Jackets in check was a huge victory for Brian VanGorder, Bob Elliott and the rest of Notre Dame’s staff.

But it was only half the battle.

This weekend, Keenan Reynolds and Navy’s veteran offense come to town looking to wreak some havoc on a defense that’s struggled to slow it down. And after getting a look at some of the new tricks the Irish had in store for Paul Johnson, Ken Niumatalolo and his offensive coaches have likely started plotting their counterpunches days in advance.

How did Notre Dame’s defense slow down Georgia Tech? Brian Kelly credited an aggressive game plan and continually changing looks. So while some were quick to wonder whether Notre Dame’s scheme changes were the biggest piece of the puzzle, it’s interesting to see how the Irish’s strategic decisions looked from the perspective of an option expert.

Over at “The Birddog” blog, Michael James utilizes his spread option expertise and takes a look at how the Irish defended Georgia Tech. His conclusion:

Did the Irish finally figure out the magic formula that will kill this gimmick high school offense for good?

Not exactly.

The Irish played a fairly standard 4-3 for a large chunk of the game. James thought Notre Dame’s move to a 3-5-3 was unique, though certainly not the first time anybody’s used that alignment.

But what stood out wasn’t necessarily the Xs and Os, but rather how much better Notre Dame’s personnel reacted to what they were facing.

Again, from the Birddog Blog:

The real story here, and what stood out to me when watching Notre Dame play Georgia Tech, was how much faster the Irish played compared to past years. I don’t mean that they are more athletic, although this is considered to be the best Notre Dame team in years. I mean that they reacted far more quickly to what they saw compared to what they’ve done in the past.

Usually, when a team plays a spread option offense, one of the biggest challenges that defensive coordinators talk about is replicating the offense’s speed and precision. It’s common to hear them say that it takes a series or two to adjust. That was most certainly not the case here.

James referenced our Media Day observations and seemed impressed by the decision to bring in walk-on Rob Regan to captain what’s now known as the SWAG team. And while VanGorder’s reputation as a mad scientist had many Irish fans wondering if the veteran coordinator cooked something up that hadn’t been seen, it was more a trait usually associated with Kelly that seems to have made the biggest difference.

“It wasn’t that the game plan was so amazing (although it was admittedly more complex and aggressive than we’ve seen out of other Notre Dame teams),” James wrote. “It was plain ol’ coachin’ ’em up.

“Notre Dame’s players were individually more prepared for what they’d see. Notre Dame is already extremely talented, but talented and prepared? You can’t adjust for that. That’s more challenging for Navy than any game plan.”

Irish prepared to take on the best Navy team in years


Brian Kelly opens every Tuesday press conference with compliments for an opponent. But this week, it was easy to see that his kind words for Navy were hardly lip service.

Ken Niumatalolo will bring his most veteran—and probably his most talented—group of Midshipmen into Notre Dame Stadium, looking to hand the Irish their first loss in the series since Kelly’s debut season in South Bend.

“Ken Niumatalolo has done an incredible job in developing his program and currently carrying an eight-game winning streak,” Kelly said. “I voted for them in USA Today Top 25 as a top-25 team. I think they’ve earned that. But their defense as well has developed. It’s played the kind of defense that I think a top 25 team plays.”

With nine months of option preparation, Notre Dame needs to feel confident about their efforts against Georgia Tech. Then again, the Midshipmen saw that game plan and likely have a few tricks in store.

As much as the Irish have focused their efforts on stopping Keenan Reynolds and the triple-option, Navy’s much-improved defense is still looking for a way to slow down a team that’s averaged a shade over 48 points a game against them the last four seasons.

Niumatalolo talked about that when asked about slowing down Will Fuller and Notre Dame’s skill players, an offense that’s averaged over 48 points a game during this four-game win streak.

“We’ve got to try our best to keep [Fuller] in front of us, that’s easier said than done,” Niumatalolo said. “We’ve got to play as close as we can without their guys running past us. I’ve been here a long time and we’re still trying to figure out how to do that.”


Navy heads to South Bend unbeaten, defeating former Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco‘s team just two Saturdays ago. And while Diaco raised a few eyebrows when he said Navy would be the team’s toughest test of the year (they already played a ranked Missouri team), the head of the UConn program couldn’t have been more effusive in his praise.

“I have been competing against Navy for some time and this is the best Navy team I have seen for, let’s say the last half-dozen years,” UConn coach Bob Diaco told the New Haven Register. “I could click on footage from three years ago and see a lion’s share of players who are playing right now in the game as freshmen and sophomores. They have a veteran group, a strong group, a talented group and they look like the stiffest competition among our first four opponents.”

As usual, there will be those who look at this game as the breather between Clemson and USC. That won’t be anybody inside The Gug. So as the Irish try to get back to their winning ways in front of a home crowd, a complete team effort is needed.

“I’ll take a win by one,” Kelly said Tuesday. “That would be fine with me.”