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.

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 83 Chase Claypool, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-4 ½, 224 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Sophomore with three seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: Claypool shot up the depth chart to be the No. 1 slot, or Z, receiver this spring, partly due to new offensive coordinator Chip Long’s preference for bigger targets and partly due to speculation surrounding sophomore Kevin Stepherson. Junior C.J. Sanders and Stepherson back up Claypool, with incoming freshman Michael Young likely to join their ranks.
Recruiting: A consensus four-star recruit, the intriguing Canadian chose Notre Dame over offers from Michigan, Oregon and Arizona, among others.

CAREER TO DATE
Claypool’s first impact came on special teams, making two tackles against Nevada in 2016’s second week. He remained a constant contributor on coverage units, finishing the season with 11 tackles, making appearances in all 12 games.

He also recorded a nine-yard run against Nevada, his only rush of the season. Of course, though, Claypool’s biggest, and most pertinent to his future, impact came in the passing game. He made five catches for 81 yards spread, including a 33-yard reception against Michigan State.

QUOTE(S)
Claypool quickly went from raw high school senior to contributing college player. The good news was he did indeed contribute. The not-so-good news was Claypool still had a lot of fundamentals to work on. Irish coach Brian Kelly said those have come along for Claypool over the last few months.

“It’s been a learning experience for him,” Kelly said with only a few weeks of spring practice remaining. “We threw him right into the fire last year, and he was swimming. He’s such a great kid. …

“Clearly, [Claypool] has definitely benefited from being here over the year and is more consistent.”

With the Irish depth at receiver and Claypool’s success embracing the physical nature of special teams last year, some wondered if he could switch to the defensive side of the ball and perhaps fill a hole at safety or linebacker. Kelly shot that thought down as soon as he heard it.

“We feel like we need his play on offense,” Kelly said. “He’ll continue to contribute on the special teams end of things, but we need his play on offense.”

Instead, Kelly intends to use Claypool’s physicality in an unexpected area at the slot receiver.

“Now he’s not a prototypical inside receiver, but there are some things where as a blocker, as a guy that can come over the middle, there aren’t many teams that can match the size and physicality of that kid,” Kelly said the week of spring practice’s end. “Does that mean he’s on the field for every snap? No, there are some things where we would move him out and put somebody else in there.”

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
Maybe I’m crazy, but I’d love Claypool to spend the summer cross-training on both sides of the ball. It’s not unheard of for a long and lean guy like Claypool to gain 15 pounds over three months, and if he does that he’ll be close to 235 pounds, enough weight to come off the edge and chase the passer.

“Of course, I did watch his highlight video. This is a kid who averaged more than 49 points a game on the basketball court and comes to South Bend a very moldable piece of clay. (No pun intended.)

“Getting on the field as a freshman shouldn’t be the most important piece of the development puzzle here. But if there’s a chance to make an impact early, it shouldn’t stop him. …

“Then again, wide receiver isn’t the deep spot on the roster that it was last season. And contributing as a freshman isn’t necessarily as far-fetched as it was the past few years. It won’t take long to see how Claypool’s talent translates to the next level. If he’s ready to take the leap forward, this coaching staff will find a way to maximize his abilities – at any positon.”

2017 OUTLOOK
First of all, two notes to Keith: You are crazy, but your wait-and-see projection for Claypool was not. (Handing the keys to this space to who you did, however, remains highly questionable.) And, don’t think for a second your pun unintended disclaimer fooled anyone.

Now then, to Claypool. Long’s predilection to larger receivers fits in line with his tendencies to utilize two tight ends. In some alternate universe, Long has not arrived at Notre Dame and Claypool’s career could have an entirely different direction.

Sending Claypool’s frame on quick routes across the middle should provide junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush an especially-dynamic safety valve of sorts. Typically the last read is a running back in the flat or a tight end on a delayed release. That is not to say Claypool will be the last read – he won’t be. It is to say envisioning him running a five-yard slant from the slot position is to foresee a can’t-miss target only a few yards away from the quarterback.

The slot obviously does other things, and Claypool will do them. The point here is to illustrate some of why Long may want to try such height and length at a position usually reserved for shifty converted running backs.

This season’s ceiling for Claypool may be about 30 catches and a couple scores. If, however, the more proven Sanders and/or Stepherson emerge as the primary slot receiver, then Claypool could be looking at half those totals, thought that would be nothing to scoff at for a developing second-year contribution.

DOWN THE ROAD
Claypool’s success and fit in Long’s scheme in 2017 should quickly determine how his time at Notre Dame plays out. If Claypool’s size does as Long hopes, then his status as the top slot receiver in 2018 and 2019 would seem assured, and the numbers should only grow with experience and development.

If, however, the Irish switch to a more prototypical slot receiver, then the discussion about moving Claypool to defense will begin anew. As Keith’s outlook a year ago said, that is not exactly an outlandish idea. If Claypool’s career follows that of former Irish linebacker James Onwualu’s, that would be far from a disappointment of any kind.


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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter
No. 84 (theoretically): Michael Young, receiver

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 84 (theoretically) Michael Young, receiver

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Listed Measurements: 5-foot-10, 170 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Freshman with four years of eligibility remaining
Depth chart: Young projects as a prototypical slot, or Z, receiver. The Irish currently have two, maybe three, dynamic commodities at the position in—presented in order of top to bottom of a theoretical depth chart—sophomore Chase Claypool, junior C.J. Sanders and sophomore Kevin Stepherson. Stepherson could also be a candidate to spend the majority of his time at the field, or X, position. In offensive coordinator Chip Long’s system, slot receivers are expected to have a working understanding on the field’s duties, anyway.
Recruiting: A consensus three-star recruit, Young provided consistency for Notre Dame at the receiver position in the class of 2017, as the only other commitment for much of the cycle de-committed in December, leading to the late addition of Jafar Armstrong.

QUOTE(S)
Irish coach Brian Kelly pinpointed the slot as Young’s likely landing spot in his National Signing Day comments.

“As a slot receiver, somebody that can really do a number of things for us inside and out, Michael Young out of Destrehan High School (Saint Rose, La.), great football at his high school in particular,” Kelly said. “We think he has the skills necessary to come in and push and compete at that position.

“We’re really pleased with the receivers, and those two in particular, how they’ll be able to come in and push the group that we have right now.”

WHAT WE SAID WHEN YOUNG’S NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT ARRIVED
Perhaps comparing Young to Torii Hunter is too easy, and not only because both enjoy the suffix of Jr. Young is known for good hands and quick moves, using his smaller stature against defenders rather than letting them take advantage of him. With quick hands, he has shown no trouble getting off the line.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Notre Dame enjoys depth at the receiver position. It will be difficult for Young to crack that this season. Defaulting to a season preserving eligibility seems too simple an answer, even if is unlikely Young contributes to the offense in a meaningful manner.

Special teams coordinator Brian Polian publicly wished for more options for his coverage units this spring. Young could help fill that void, and while he is spending the eligibility, chip in on offensively in spot duty.

The slot might be the thinnest of the Irish receiving positions, especially if the cloud around Stepherson turns out to be more than idle speculation. At that point, having Young in the rotation could prove useful.

DOWN THE ROAD
Kelly has long enjoyed having a shifty option at the slot. Claypool may prove to be the exception this season, as Notre Dame embraces a size advantage at receiver, but Kelly’s track record speaks for itself. Young could follow in the footsteps of the likes of Hunter, Amir Carlisle, C.J. Prosise and Theo Riddick.

It is no coincidence three of those relied on the distinct footwork learned as running backs to excel at the slot position. Young’s hands are a known and respected bright spot for him. His breakthrough at some point may depend on the time he spends with receivers coach Del Alexander on his footwork and the other finer tools of the position.


Aside from the five early enrollees, the numbers are not yet known for the Irish freshmen class. That is one of the admitted drawbacks to organizing this summer-long series numerically. But a little bit of educated guessing can garner estimates for those numbers, and those estimates can allow the series to proceed without pause.

How are those estimates crafted? The first step is to take a look at certain NCAA rules. When it comes to an “end,” the NCAA limits them to Nos. 80-99. Looking at the Irish roster, this leaves only so many likely options for Young, hence slotting him at No. 84, though his likely landing at slot may reduce the need to fit in that range of 20

Michael Young, Jr., very well may not wear No. 84, but it is possible, and, frankly, it could be close.


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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end
No. 85: Tyler Newsome, punter

Notre Dame 99-to-2: No. 85 Tyler Newsome, punter

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Listed Measurements: 6-foot-2 ½, 207 pounds
2017-18 year, eligibility: Senior with two seasons of eligibility remaining including the 2017 season
Depth chart: While Notre Dame did unexpectedly add kicker Jonathan Doerer to its incoming freshmen class, his specialty is kickoffs. Newsome remains essentially unchallenged at the punter position.
Recruiting: Punters are not often heralded as recruits, but rivals.com did bestow a three-star ranking on Newsome, the No. 6 kicker/punter in his class.

CAREER TO DATE
With former Irish kicker/punter Kyle Brindza handling all the leg-swinging duties in 2014, Newsome preserved a year of eligibility before taking over as punter his sophomore season. With more than 100 boots to his name at this point, Newsome has been an example of consistency.

2015: 55 punts at an average of 44.5 yards per punt with a long of 62 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 38.1 yards per punt.
2016: 54 punts at an average of 43.5 yards per punt with a long of 71 yards. Notre Dame averaged a field position swing of 35.3 yards per punt.

Newsome also handled the kickoff duties in 2015, but that was removed from his to-do list last season and should not return to Newsome’s plate this season, especially now with Doerer entering the picture.

2015: 84 kickoffs at an average of 61.6 yards per kick with 21 touchbacks and five sent out of bounds.

WHAT KEITH ARNOLD PROJECTED A YEAR AGO
“If 2015 was about exceeding expectations, 2016 will be about performing with the bar raised. Newsome’s rookie season was a good one. But there’s room for improvements.

“Expect new special teams analyst Marty Biagi to take Newsome under his wing. The former college punter will likely spend some time refining Newsome’s craft, looking to add hang time to his punts and kicks, and making sure there are more booming moon shots than side-footed shanks.

“Notre Dame doesn’t want to have a celebrated punter – and they won’t as long as the offense performs. But the combo of Newsome and Yoon has the chance to be one of the better special teams batteries in America.”

2017 OUTLOOK
Keith’s final point rings true. Notre Dame does not necessarily want Newsome to excel. If he is getting enough work to truly stand out, that simply means the Irish offense has turned stalling into a routine occurrence.

Whether he gets frequent use or not, Newsome has proven to be a consistent performer, largely immune to the pressure so often found to figuratively cripple college kickers and punters. Expect that steadfastness to continue this season.

DOWN THE ROAD
Unless Doerer begins punting in practices, in addition to his possible kickoff duties, Newsome should take comfort in the fact that the Irish coaching staff did not pursue a punter in the class of 2017. If nothing else, that indicates they expect him back in 2018, and they appear to be comfortable with that. Newsome is low maintenance, and that should not be undervalued.

Could he catch Notre Dame off guard and leave early? When is the last time a kicker or punter not named Aguayo declared for the NFL before his eligibility expired? (No, really, go ahead and do the research. Much appreciated.) If a non-football opportunity presents itself such that Newsome considers leaving for it, one would think that opportunity would still be around a semester later on. He isn’t a linebacker worried about his long-term health, so there should be less motivation to cut short his college football experience.


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 (theoretically): Darnell Ewell, defensive tackle
No. 94 (theoretically): Kurt Hinish, defensive tackle
No. 93: Jay Hayes, defensive end
No. 92 (theoretically): Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa, defensive tackle
No. 91: Ade Ogundeji, defensive end
No. 90 (theoretically): Cole Kmet, tight end
No. 89: Brock Wright, tight end
No. 88: Javon McKinley, receiver
No. 87 (theoretically): Jafar Armstrong, receiver
No. 86: Alizé Mack, tight end

Friday at 4: A holiday with reason to be remembered

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This weekend marks the unofficial start of summer, and it has its mainstays. Some weekends will hinge around the parade up Main Street. At some point, everyone comes across a hot dog or hamburger during the long weekend. A beer or pop inevitably accompanies that grilled good.

Gathering college friends may even add a whiffle ball and bat to the grocery list.

Between innings, during one of those many social breaks, take a moment to remind yourself why Monday is a federal holiday, why it is a long weekend.

It isn’t just because the weather has finally turned as desired and now white pants are socially acceptable.

It is — as we all know but do not always take the time to recognize — because it is Memorial Day, a chance to remember all those people who died while serving the United States’ armed forces.

That obviously includes some former Irish football players, but they are merely a representation of the larger item.

Rather than continue on for who-knows-how-long with this point, let’s take this opportunity to deliver some Notre Dame-related tidbits. As it pertains to Memorial Day as a whole, either you already grasp the importance of taking a pause and understanding the significance of so many lost in service, or you don’t. This space is not going to be the piece that changes the latter’s view.

Looking through some of the internet’s depths, it appears at least 19 former Irish football players are among those who should be remembered Monday, including 17 from World War II, most notably 1942 captain George Murphy. In 2004, ESPN published a worthwhile story on a football game Murphy helped organize among Marines in the southwest Pacific.

Those 19 are among the approximate 500 alumni who died in World War II, the Korea War and the Vietnam War. The Clarke Memorial Fountain — more commonly known as “Stonehenge,” directly west of the campus library, more commonly known as “Touchdown Jesus” — commemorates alums lost in each of those three wars, as well as those alums lost in times of peace.

Of course, it should be noted many other World War II veterans — and simply by logic, many other World War II casualties — passed through Notre Dame. The naval training established on campus is the impetus to the Navy football series continuing to this day. In addition to the usual students, about 12,000 officers trained at Notre Dame in those days.

Campus features two other prominent acknowledgements of this country’s conflicts. The statue of Rev. Corby in front of Corby Hall depicts him delivering a blessing and absolution to troops during the Battle of Gettysburg. It is a copy of a statue standing where Corby stood back in 1863.

Perhaps most famously, an entrance to the Basilica of the Sacred Heart bears the etching of “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Partly since he titled his autobiography with those four words, many tie them to Rev. Ted Hesburgh. “God, Country, Notre Dame,” in fact, predates Hesburgh’s arrival to campus. The Basilica’s eastern entrance was constructed in 1924 as a World War I memorial. During World War II, 20 years later, the accompanying statues of St. Joan of Arc and St. Michael the Archangel were added above the well-known phrase.

Lastly, it has become something of a Notre Dame tradition to bemoan the selection for commencement speaker each spring. Forgotten amid the misguided vitriol and inaccurate historical claims is a recognition of one of the first University commencement speakers. Nowadays, he, too, would certainly draw some magnitude of controversy.

During the Civil War, Gen. William T. Sherman — yes, he of Sherman’s March — moved his family to South Bend. His children attended Notre Dame, and Sherman delivered the 1865 commencement address. That ceremony took place June 21, in short order after Sherman accepted the surrender of Confederate armies in the Deep South in April of 1865.

Sherman urged the graduates to “perform bravely the battle of life.”

Perhaps that is the message to remember this weekend. Perform bravely the battle of life. At least 19 Irish football players did, as well as more than 500 Notre Dame alums, and so many more, of which each of us assuredly knows of one personally.


It is the Soldier, not the minister
Who as given us freedom of religion.
It is the Soldier, not the reporter
Who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the Solier, not the poet
Who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the Soldier, not the campus organizer
Who has given us freedom to protest.
It is the Soldier, not the lawyer
Who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the Soldier, not the politician
Who has given us the right to vote.
It is the Soldier who salutes the flag,
Who serves beneath the flag,
And whose coffin is draped by the flag,
Who allows the protester to burn the flag.

Charles Michael Province, U.S. Army