Dec 24, 2012, 2:13 PM EDT
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.
May 24, 2013, 6:59 PM EDT
With the unofficial kickoff to summer upon us, we’re inside 100 days until football is back. That may seem like quite a long time, but we’ve got plenty of ground to cover in the next few months as we get a better look at what the 2013 Fighting Irish will be. Before everybody disappears for…
May 23, 2013, 4:27 PM EDT
Jake Golic‘s football career isn’t over. The reserve tight end will spend his final season of eligibility at Cincinnati, exercising his ability to transfer and play immediately after graduating from Notre Dame last week with a degree in graphic design. Golic appeared in just five games during his four seasons in South Bend, battling injuries…
May 22, 2013, 3:14 PM EDT
With Theo Riddick and Cierre Wood gone from the Irish backfield, the Notre Dame running game is missing its two leading men from 2012. Yet there isn’t a huge worry about what comes next. Even with Riddick’s surprising, hard charging senior season and Wood’s three seasons in (and around) the starting lineup, there’s every belief…
May 21, 2013, 11:01 AM EDT
For the past few days, rumors have been swirling about high-profile prospect Eddie Vanderdoes. The blue-chip defensive lineman, who made the dramatic decision to sign with Notre Dame on Signing Day, is reportedly having some second thoughts on that commitment. What that entails – or if it’s actually true – is anyone’s guess. Vanderdoes himself…
May 20, 2013, 7:07 PM EDT
With a solid nucleus returning from a twelve-win season, there’s every reason for there to be elevated expectations in South Bend this season. But the edict “BCS or Bust” shouldn’t just be a mantra in the Gug. It’s also a potential reality, thanks to the final year of Notre Dame’s rather sparse bowl affiliations. At…
May 18, 2013, 4:04 AM EDT
The future depth chart along the offensive line for Notre Dame just received another star-studded name when Tennessee’s Alex Bars gave his verbal commitment to the Irish coaching staff. The 6-foot-6, 280-pound linemen picked Notre Dame over an elite offer list, turning down Michigan, Ohio State, LSU, Penn State and Stanford among a slew of…
May 17, 2013, 7:00 AM EDT
When you think back to this time last year, there were so many unanswered questions about the Notre Dame offense. We were quoting Nelly and analyzing pie charts, hoping to get to the bottom of what was wrong with an offense that couldn’t stop shooting itself in the foot and struggled getting any efficiency. Everett…
May 16, 2013, 11:19 AM EDT
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen defensive end Aaron Lynch on the football field. After a freshman All-American season for the Irish, Lynch left South Bend in the middle of spring practice and headed home to South Florida. The soap opera surrounding the decision to transfer, which included social media pleas to stay…
May 16, 2013, 5:38 AM EDT
It appears football life (almost) in the ACC is starting to come into scheduling focus, as news is starting to trickle out from Big Ten rivals about future dates. While the Michigan series is on hold (likely until 2020), Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis announced the future of the Irish-Spartans rivalry isn’t going anywhere.…
May 14, 2013, 11:54 AM EDT
It might not fly too well on the handshake circuit, but Brady Hoke‘s dig at Notre Dame for backing out of the Michigan series might not be all that appropriate… considering Michigan asked to take a break first. Last June news broke that the Irish and Wolverines were going to take a two-year hiatus in…
May 14, 2013, 7:40 AM EDT
God bless Brady Hoke. During a time of year where just about anything counts as college football news, the Michigan head coach provided some real bulletin board material and ratcheted up a Notre Dame-Michigan rivalry that will be coming to a temporary end after the 2014 season. “We are fortunate to have unbelievable rivalry games…
May 13, 2013, 10:41 AM EDT
With news light on the college football front (we’re still putting the pieces together for some long-form offseason features), let’s take a quick look at San Diego, where Manti Te’o‘s life as an NFL football player just got started. Te’o debuted at rookie minicamp, where reporters and coaches got their first look at the former…
May 12, 2013, 8:07 PM EDT
For Notre Dame football fans, there will always be a bit of a “what if” with Jeff Samardzija. The former All-American wide receiver, who exploded onto the scene when Charlie Weis arrived in South Bend, scored a ridiculous 27 touchdown passes in his final two years in South Bend, exactly 27 more than he did…
May 10, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
The news of Gunner Kiel leaving Notre Dame was hardly a surprise. The talented young quarterback, who redshirted during the Irish’s 2012 run to the BCS Championship game, departed before spring practice, with an eye on finding an opportunity to play. It was another switch on an already wayward journey for Kiel, one of the…
May 8, 2013, 6:58 PM EDT
Sad news out of the Notre Dame football program. Former fullback Asaph Schwapp has lost his battle with cancer. He was just 26 years old. News of his grave condition broke earlier today when former Irish coach Charlie Weis tweeted, “One of the first young men I ever recruited to ND, Asaph Schwapp is gravely…
May 8, 2013, 4:58 PM EDT
As the school year draws to a close, the Irish are in the unofficial portion of the calendar. Yet that’s the time — through the guidance of strength and conditioning coach Paul Longo, that leadership usually emerges. Watching Brian Kelly’s teams evolve, you get the idea that when Kelly says his team develops at its…
May 7, 2013, 6:25 PM EDT
Last year, Notre Dame assembled a recruiting class that did most of its own work. Spearheaded by early commitments like James Onwualu, Malik Zaire and Jaylon Smith, the “Irish Mob” built on the camaraderie and closed strong, adding five-star recruits Greg Bryant, Max Redfield and Eddie Vanderdoes. It looks like the current recruiting class is…
May 6, 2013, 8:00 AM EDT
Putting the 2012 season into context will be easier the farther away it gets. Notre Dame’s unlikely run to the BCS Championship game is incredible for so many different reasons. Even if the end result was a one-sided Alabama victory, the fact that the Irish found themselves at the apex of the mountain is one…
May 4, 2013, 7:55 AM EDT
The house that Rockne built is in need of another expansion. At least that’s the thinking among Notre Dame administrators. The university announced a feasibility study that’s going to explore all options for the iconic stadium over the next six to nine months, as part of the a larger campus plan. “Inspired by the University’s…
May 2, 2013, 5:08 AM EDT
Just a few days after adding one of the top running backs in the country, the Notre Dame coaching staff accepted the verbal commitment of New Jersey offensive lineman Quenton Nelson. The 6-foot-5, 285-pound offensive tackle had offers from Alabama, Miami, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Stanford and a slew of others. Nelson joins a growing offensive…
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