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Ten players, ten reasons: Zeke Motta

Dec 24, 2012, 2:13 PM EDT

Notre Dame-Purdue

The first of ten features on ten below-the-radar players whose performances helped key the Irish’s run to the national title game.

If there’s a handful of enduring images from this season, Zeke Motta‘s celebration in the USC visitors locker room belongs near the top of the list. As Lane Kiffin addressed the media after another disappointing loss, Notre Dame’s celebration from the nearby visitors dressing room could be heard through the Coliseum’s concrete walls, another awkward moment for the Trojans head coach, who did his best to work his way through a long list of questioners before escaping a regular season that turned into a nightmare, courtesy of Motta and his Notre Dame teammates.

Leading that Irish celebration was Motta — lying atop a bank of lockers, like a surfer awaiting a wave — high above his teammates. He screamed and celebrated, steam billowing from his body after another punishing football game, and embraced the moment. A moment filled with pure joy; the culmination of one of the more amazing regular seasons in Irish history. And a moment a long time coming for Motta.

For most of his time in South Bend, Motta looked like the prototype Charlie Weis recruit. On paper, he appeared to be a near perfect recruit. A coveted prospect with great recruiting offers. The son of a coach and a physical freak of nature. Yet Motta’s physical skills would only take him so far. He needed the mental game to match-up with physical prowess. And three seasons with Brian Kelly’s defensive staff helped a transformation that was one of the most important of 2012.

Motta spent much of 2010 playing by default. With a roster unbelievably absent of safeties, Motta was thrust into action, learning on the fly next to Harrison Smith, playing major minutes as a true sophomore that had only begun cutting his teeth as a special teams player in 2009. Motta’s 2011 season was another year of development, with his best moments coming near the end of the season, a scoop and score defensive touchdown overshadowed by the Irish offense’s inability to beat Florida State.

With Smith departing the Irish roster as a first round draft pick, and cornerbacks Gary Gray and Robert Blanton no longer manning their respective positions, a secondary where Motta always simply fit in was now his own to lead, especially after the season ending Achilles injury to Jamoris Slaughter.

And Motta rose to the challenge, one of the great achievements on an Irish team that finds itself playing for a national championship.

“It’s probably one of the most remarkable developments of a player from year one or year two to year three in that sense,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said back in September. “I wanted to push him out front because I saw a young man that the way he practiced, the dedication he has to the game, the kind of young man he is, you want him representing your program.

“He was a young man that at times had a hard time speaking in front of a group.  This spring, I had him speak at our spring banquet along with Justin Tuck. He handled himself well there, and it’s just been a great evolutionary process to see him continue to grow as a person and as a player.  He deserves all the credit for that.”

On the field, Motta’s senior season has been a tremendous success. He’s tied for second on the team in tackles with 61, and has quarterbacked the secondary as the unit’s only returning contributor for most of the season. He’s also taken his NFL-ready size and turned a slow to develop college career into one that’ll see him make a career playing football on Sundays.

Just how good has Motta been this season? Consider NBC’s Mike Mayock, one of the best talent evaluators in the business, and his assessment of Motta’s draft status for Irish Illustrated:

“I like Zeke Motta for a lot of reasons. He’s a big, physical, tough safety. You look at the success that Harrison Smith had a year ago as a first-round safety, and Zeke is a little bigger, stronger, and more physical. I don’t think he moves quite as well from a change-of-direction perspective as Smith. But I’m a big believer that Zeke is going to be a starting safety in the league. Again, just kind of an overview, I think he’s probably going to go somewhere in the second or third round.”

The realization that Motta could have a long and successful career in the NFL as a starting safety feels a little like the proposition of Notre Dame battling Alabama for college football’s national title. You always thought it possible, yet the realization it’s going to happen is still difficult to fathom.

But for Motta, that realization is a product of hard work and maturation. It’s the merging of God-given talent and man-made work ethic.

“I’ve taken leaps from where I was two years ago,” Motta told The Observer in November. “From last year, obviously, a lot more comfortable and confident out on the field and that helps with being able to play fast and really dominate your opponent.”

It has also helped build an undefeated football team.

  1. bodonnell1120 - Dec 24, 2012 at 3:43 PM

    Motta, more than any player on the roster, made me eat my words this season. He was all over the field and played fearless football. Respect!

  2. papadec - Dec 24, 2012 at 4:17 PM

    WOW! Christmas Eve Day & Keith pounding out two posts. What a pleasant surprise under the Christmas tree. Thanks Keith – Merry Christmas & God Keep you & your family well.

  3. nudeman - Dec 25, 2012 at 11:08 AM

    This is decidedly off topic, but I saw this article (below) and if I don’t post it now I’ll forget and never do it.

    First, in fairness to Zeke, congratulations on a nice year. I banged hard on him for having hands of stone (still not his strongest suit) but the guy improved markedly this year. I’m not sure what kind of a pro career he’ll have but he’s a great ND guy and I’m glad he’s on our side.

    Anyway … Dayne Crist. Like Lynch, I’ve sort of wondered what Dayne must be thinking about watching ND’s season and not being part of it. We recently found out about Lynch, ND’s Prodigal Son, when it was revealed he wants back. I feel very zero empathy for this guy because he made his own bed. Deal with it big fella … maybe grow up along the way.

    Crist … different story, but lots of moving parts, nonetheless. Highly popular, 5 stars, beloved by teammates and thought by all to be the obvious choice to play QB for Kelly, even though his strength wasn’t the spread offense.

    Then life happened.

    Injuries and a new coach who wasn’t enamored of him, and he exits SB without coming remotely close to fulfilling his potential. But he never had a bad word to say about anyone publicly and to this day professes his love for ND. Hard not to pull for him.

    From a football standpoint, injuries aside I thought he exhibited a fairly acute case of RPS (Ron Powlus Syndrome), as he got a little worse every year. This year, for whatever reason there were a lot of KU games on TV. I saw quite a few of his snaps and was shocked. A terrible team surrounding him, but still, Dayne was bad. REAL bad. He even fumbled a snap at the goal line to cost them a game. Lady Macbeth … you there?

    I feel bad for Dayne, hope he finds something to turn around his career and play on Sunday. But I’m not betting on it based on what I’ve seen. Anyway, this is a good read:

    http://www.cbssports.com/collegefootball/blog/bruce-feldman/21446141/crist-reflects-on-watching-nds-dream-season-from-a-distance

    Again sorry about the off topic. Not trying to hijack the post. Just wanted to share a great ND story.

    GO ZEKE.

    • bernhtp - Dec 25, 2012 at 11:37 AM

      I read this yesterday and immediately thought of the biblical story of Job. Dayne seems to be a really good guy, and he will likely have a great future, but I can’t see it being in pro football unless God and Satan relent in their bet and return his gifts and life.

      • nudeman - Dec 25, 2012 at 11:51 AM

        Good one

        As long as it’s Christmas and we’re going with the Biblical theme, you must agree that if they ever make an Aaron Lynch movie (admittedly that’s doubtful), they MUST call it “The Prodigal Son”

      • bernhtp - Dec 25, 2012 at 5:30 PM

        The stories of Aaron seeking to return are both interesting and sad. Unlike the prodigal son, Aaron is not being welcomed back, no fatted calf will be slain, etc.

    • dmac4real - Dec 26, 2012 at 1:43 PM

      Nude: Where did you see the Lynch stories?

  4. irishdodger - Dec 25, 2012 at 11:51 AM

    Dayne is pure class & an ND man through & through. I wish him the best going forward & if he beats the odds & prolongs his fball career, I’ll be his biggest fan.

  5. nudeman - Dec 25, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    Somewhere here there has to be room for a line about a “Heat Zeke-ing Missile”

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