Ten players, ten reasons: Zeke Motta

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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.

Report: Daniel Cage to miss 2017, career in question due to medical issues

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The two positions at which Notre Dame most lacks depth and experience are safety and defensive tackle. Fittingly, the morning after junior safety Ashton White announced he is leaving the Irish football team, a report indicates senior defensive tackle Daniel Cage will miss the 2017 season, as well.

Irish Illustrated’s Pete Sampson reported Cage intends to spend this season focusing on getting healthy before he decides if he will continue playing football at all. A concussion ended Cage’s season last year and Cage’s mother said the effects of that concussion continue to linger. Additionally, Cage underwent knee surgery this summer.

“He loves football,” Bionne Cage told Sampson. “First and foremost, his health has to be OK. If he can get that straightened out, he can continue playing.”

Cage has suffered three concussions over his Irish career, plus knee and ankle ailments. While the joint issues are obviously a concern for a 320-plus pound individual, the concussion symptoms will be the bigger impediment to Cage finishing his career.

He has appeared in 30 games over three years, making a total of 32 tackles with five tackles for loss. The senior has one year of eligibility remaining.

Without Cage, Notre Dame will need to rely on a litany of unproven commodities in the defensive line interior. Junior Jerry Tillery will lead the way, and senior Jonathan Bonner has shown the ability to hold his own, despite moving to tackle only a year ago.

After that starting duo, though, questions arise. Junior Elijah Taylor suffered a LisFranc injury during spring practice, and the recovery from that can be inherently touch-and-go. Juniors Brandon Tiassum and Micah Dew-Treadway have never appeared in a collegiate game while senior Pete Mokwuah has seen action in six games, making one total tackle.

Suffice it to say, the chance is there for freshmen Darnell Ewell, Kurt Hinish and Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa to earn playing time at the outset of their careers. (more…)

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 11 Freddy Canteen, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-1, 185 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior graduate transfer from Michigan with two years of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season.
Depth chart: A la the depth chart speculating regarding fellow graduate transfer Cameron Smith, predicting Canteen’s standing among the receivers is difficult considering he has a short window to make an impact but has yet to practice so much as once in front of the Irish coaches. In theory, Canteen will join the ranks as a slot receiver, otherwise known as the Z, battling junior C.J. Sanders and perhaps Smith for the right to back up sophomore Chase Claypool. If Notre Dame opts for a more traditional inside route runner than the 6-foot-4 Claypool, that top backup would obviously be given first crack at that chance.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star prospect, Canteen chose Michigan over offers from Maryland and Tennessee, among others, back in 2014. The No. 47 receiver in the class, per rivals.com, and No. 9 recruit in Maryland, Canteen enrolled early in Ann Arbor.

CAREER TO DATE
Canteen’s speed got him on the field as a freshman, seeing action in 10 games. With a coaching change from Brady Hoke to Jim Harbaugh, his playing time was already decreasing in 2015 before a shoulder injury ended his season early. Last year, Canteen may or may not have been healthy enough to play, but either way he spent the season on the sidelines preserving a year of eligibility.

2014: 10 games, two starts, five receptions for 22 yards and one touchdown.
2015: Five games, one start, one reception for no gain.

QUOTE(S)
Canteen announced his transfer decision less than two weeks after 2017’s National Signing Day. Shortly after that day spent praising incoming freshmen, Irish coach Brian Kelly suggested an incoming transfer was imminent, presumably expecting the addition of Canteen. Once as much was official, Kelly was able to praise the receiver’s speed much as he heralded the high school seniors Feb. 1.

“Freddy will bring some speed and athleticism to our wide receiver group,” Kelly said in a release. “We’re excited to get him on campus with our coaching staff and players in preparation for the 2017 season. Freddy is a committed, focused and determined individual, both on and off the field, and our receivers and offense will benefit greatly from his addition.”

WHAT WE WROTE UPON THE TRANSFER ANNOUNCEMENT
Canteen will bolster depth at a position headlined by juniors Equanimeous St. Brown and C.J. Sanders. Though Canteen would not likely project in St. Brown’s place, he could possibly challenge Sanders in the slot or sophomores Kevin Stepherson and Javon McKinley out wide.

“He could also, theoretically, flip to defense where Notre Dame needs help at defensive back. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, Canteen’s skill set could translate to the position without much lapse.”

2017 OUTLOOK
It remains possible Canteen spends more time with the Irish defense than the offense, but it seems unlikely. One doesn’t transfer only to switch to a less-preferred position. Rather, Canteen is likely confident his speed and precise route running can set him apart from other Notre Dame pass-catchers.

If that is the case, he should fit right into Kelly’s long-standing preference to have a deep threat available to take the top off the secondary. (Think of former Irish receiver Chris Brown’s role, even if he wasn’t frequently targeted.) Stepherson or Smith could also offer that top-end speed, but Canteen’s acceleration in the first 10 yards should set him apart.

That particular skill will also likely be seen on special teams. Special teams coordinator Brian Polian has hoped for more options on his coverage and return units. Canteen was not around the team in the spring to aid in that regard — he only graduated from Michigan in April, despite the February transfer announcement — but this fall could earn some notice by shining on Polian’s coverage units.

DOWN THE ROAD
Canteen is not the typical graduate transfer. He joins the Irish with two years of eligibility remaining. Nonetheless, handing him a scholarship is a low-risk, high-reward situation for Notre Dame. If he does not pan out, the scholarship was not going to be used in 2017 anyway, so at most one year of one scholarship is frivoled away in 2018. If he does, however, find a role in the Irish offense, suddenly a weapon was added late in the process.

Notre Dame’s receivers are a young group, both in experience and in eligibility. Any playing time Canteen finds will be hard-earned, but that was clear to all parties before he made his February decision.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback
No. 12: Alohi Gilman, safety

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship

Junior safety Ashton White leaves Notre Dame football, remains at University

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Junior safety Ashton White announced he is leaving the Notre Dame football team via a Twitter post Wednesday evening. White will finish the year at the University with the intention of graduating in the spring in order to qualify as a graduate transfer for the 2018 season.

“I would first like to thank [Irish] Coach [Brian] Kelly for the opportunity to play the game I love at such a wonderful institution such as Notre Dame,” White wrote. “However, I will not be with the team this fall as I focus on some ambitious academic goals of mine.”

If White does indeed graduate and transfer to an FBS-level program in the spring, he would have two years of eligibility remaining. Because he preserved a year of eligibility already in 2015, the former cornerback does not actually save a year of playing time by not playing this season. That said, if he sees little playing time on the horizon and intends to transfer, doing so as a graduate student would make the most sense. Spending the time he would be using on football instead on his studies very well could behoove that process.

White’s departure leaves the Irish with even less depth on the defensive back-line, but he was not likely to play much this season even with that being the case. Junior cornerback-turned-safety Nick Coleman joins sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill firmly ahead of White on the depth chart. Junior Nicco Fertitta has consistently seen more playing time than White each of the last two seasons, and freshman Jordan Genmark Heath could have quickly moved up the depth chart, as well.

That does not even mention senior Drue Tranquill, who could conceivably move back to safety from rover if injuries necessitated it, or sophomore cornerback Julian Love, who Kelly has indicated was already being considered for some safety duty in passing-specific situations.

Notre Dame will prefer to keep Tranquill at rover, to only bring in Fertitta in short-yardage scenarios and to ease Genmark Heath into the program, but altering those plans all may have been options before White saw much playing time.

“[I] can’t wait to watch & support my former teammates and best friends chase that ring they’ve worked so hard for!” White closed. “Thank you ND Nation.. [sic] it’s been an awesome couple years!”

White finishes his Irish career with two tackles in six games. He played in the first five games last year before seeing time in only one of the final seven. (more…)

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 12 Alohi Gilman, safety

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot, 195 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore transfer from the Naval Academy with three years of eligibility remaining. That clock is currently expected to start ticking with the 2018 season, but Notre Dame has filed an appeal with the NCAA to grant Gilman eligibility in 2017, though he would still have only three seasons of playing time remaining in his career.
Depth chart: Whenever Gilman joins the playing fray, he will immediately factor into the two-deep at safety, if not even top the chart on the boundary half of the field. Junior Nick Coleman appears to be entrenched as the starter at field safety for the time being, at which point Gilman will be competing with sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill at boundary safety and the subsequent backup slots.

CAREER TO DATE
The highlight of Gilman’s freshman campaign as a Midshipman came in tallying 12 tackles against the Irish in Navy’s 28-27 victory. That total stands as his career high and his new Notre Dame number, though that may or may not be a coincidence.

2016: 14 games, 12 starts, 76 tackles, five tackles for loss, five pass breakups, two fumble recoveries including one for a touchdown, one forced fumble.

QUOTE(S)
When Gilman announced his transfer in early June, Irish coach Brian Kelly spoke both of the type of person and the type of defender joining his team.

“First of all, Alohi is a great fit here in terms of his character and also what he wants to achieve academically,” Kelly said. “Clearly, that’s primary in our recruiting. Secondly, in terms of his football fit, we got a good look of him against us last season. He plays the style of safety we want in this program. Alohi’s a run-and-hit safety that fits perfectly in the Mike Elko defense.”

Kelly extrapolated on that latter bit days later before the annual Kelly Cares Foundation golf outing.

“We think [Gilman’s] run-and-hit ability is extraordinary,” Kelly said. “Very smart, football savvy. We think he’s certainly got a chance to get on the field.”

WHAT WE WROTE UPON THE TRANSFER ANNOUNCEMENT
Heading into this coming season, the Irish lack proven safeties. Junior Nick Coleman and sophomore Jalen Elliott will be the most likely starters in the season-opener against Temple. Coleman moved from cornerback to safety this offseason, while Elliott made 14 tackles in his debut season.

“So while Gilman will most likely sit out this season, thanks to a year of starting at Navy he will essentially be on even footing come 2018 as far as experience with the rest of the defensive backline. At 6-foot, 195 pounds, he may seem slight, but consider that Notre Dame lists Coleman as 6-foot, 187 pounds, and Elliott as 6-foot-½, 208 pounds.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Let’s start with the question of Gilman’s 2017 eligibility. There are grounds for the NCAA to grant him a waiver, thus granting him an immediate chance to play. The military once allowed potential-professional athletes from the academies to pursue careers, but now it mandates military service first. With that change, it also changed the circumstances around Gilman’s future.

Per Kelly, the NCAA has not ruled on a waiver in this situation before. With that in mind, Kelly expects a timely resolution. Will that come to be reality? This is the NCAA. Let’s not spend time trying to decipher its logic or its procedures.

If Gilman is not eligible, he will spend a season on the Irish scout team making junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s life miserable. If he is eligible, he will be a strong understanding of the playbook away from consistent playing time.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kelly praised Gilman as a physical safety. That would seem to put him in the same category as Elliott, though perhaps with better coverage skills. In that instance, Gilman could fill in for Elliott in intermediate down-and-distance situations, guarding against a pass while also providing strong run support.

On more obvious passing downs, perhaps Studstill comes in, or perhaps Gilman offers strong enough pass coverage he can continue to man the position, even allowing sophomore Julian Love to stay at cornerback, further strengthening the Notre Dame secondary.

The reasons behind Gilman’s transfer should also be acknowledged here. He very clearly has NFL aspirations. That is to be lauded. Just keep it in mind: Once that opportunity presents itself, Gilman will likely take that chance.


2017’s Notre Dame 99-to-2
Friday at 4: Goodbye A-to-Z, hello 99-to-2 (May 12)
No. 99: Jerry Tillery, defensive tackle
No. 98: Andrew Trumbetti, defensive end
No. 97: Micah Dew-Treadway, defensive tackle
No. 96: Pete Mokwuah, defensive tackle
No. 95: Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 92)
No. 94: Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 95)
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92: Jonathon MacCollister; defensive end (originally theorized as No. 46)
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87: Michael Young, receiver (originally theorized as No. 84)
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84: Cole Kmet, tight end (originally theorized as No. 90)
No. 83: Chase Claypool, receiver
No. 82: Nic Weishar, tight end
No. 81: Miles Boykin, receiver
No. 80: Durham Smythe, tight end
No. 78: Tommy Kraemer, right tackle
No. 77: Brandon Tiassum, defensive tackle
No. 76: Dillan Gibbons, offensive lineman (originally theorized as No. 65)
No. 75: Josh Lugg, offensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 73)
No. 75: Daniel Cage, defensive tackle
No. 74: Liam Eichenberg, right tackle
No. 72: Robert Hainsey, offensive tackle
No. 71: Alex Bars, offensive lineman
No. 70: Hunter Bivin, offensive lineman
No. 69: Aaron Banks, offensive lineman
No. 68: Mike McGlinchey, left tackle
No. 67: Jimmy Byrne, offensive lineman
No. 58: Elijah Taylor, defensive tackle
No. 57: Trevor Ruhland, offensive lineman
No. 56: Quenton Nelson, left guard
No. 55: Jonathan Bonner, defensive lineman
No. 54: John Shannon, long snapper
No. 53: Sam Mustipher, center
No. 53: Khalid Kareem, defensive lineman
No. 48: Greer Martini, inside linebacker
No. 47: Kofi Wardlow, defensive end
No. 45: Jonathan Jones, inside linebacker
No. 44: Jamir Jones, linebacker/defensive lineman
No. 42: Julian Okwara, defensive end
No. 41: Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle (originally theorized as No. 94)
No. 40: Drew White, linebacker
No. 39: Jonathan Doerer, kicker (originally theorized as No. 52)
No. 38: Deon McIntosh, running back/receiver
No. 35: David Adams, linebacker
No. 34: Tony Jones, Jr., running back
No. 33: Josh Adams, running back
No. 32: D.J. Morgan, safety
No. 30: Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, rover
No. 29: Kevin Stepherson, receiver
No. 28: Nicco Fertitta, safety
No. 27: Julian Love, cornerback
No. 26: Ashton White, safety
No. 25: Jafar Armstrong, receiver (originally theorized as No. 87)
No. 24: Nick Coleman, safety
No. 23: Drue Tranquill, rover
No. 22: Asmar Bilal, rover
No. 21: Jalen Elliott, safety
No. 19: Justin Yoon, kicker
No. 18: Troy Pride, cornerback
No. 17: Isaiah Robertson, safety
No. 16: Cameron Smith, receiver
No. 15: C.J. Holmes, running back
No. 14: Devin Studstill, safety
No. 13: Avery Davis, quarterback
No. 13: Jordan Genmark Heath, safety
No. 12: Ian Book, quarterback

TRANSFERS
No. 66: Tristen Hoge, offensive lineman, transfers to BYU
No. 50: Parker Boudreaux, offensive lineman
No. 30: Josh Barajas, linebacker, to transfer to Illinois State

INJURIES
No. 13: Tyler Luatua, tight end, career ended by medical hardship