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.
Aug 1, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
For most of Romeo Okwara’s college career, the defender’s young age was mentioned when discussing the intriguing athlete’s upside. With ideal length, more than adequate athleticism and a skill set that fit in both Bob Diaco and Brian VanGorder’s defense, it was always a wait-and-see proposition for the North Carolina native, who simply needed a few years in Paul Longo’s weight room to catch up to his age.
Jul 31, 2015, 4:39 PM EDT
With the start of training camp right around the corner, it’s time for our annual tradition of ranking the Top 25 players on the Notre Dame roster.
Jul 31, 2015, 12:00 PM EDT
With Kyle Brindza gone, sophomore Tyler Newsome takes over the punting duties. And outside of seeing a few not-really live kicks in the Blue-Gold game, what that means remains to be seen.
Jul 31, 2015, 11:48 AM EDT
We wrap up our offseason look at Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents with the Stanford Cardinal. The postseason could come down to a late-season showdown in Palo Alto with David Shaw’s team trying to rebound from a five-loss season.
Jul 31, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
After a redshirt season, Quenton Nelson is ready to play. Jumping to the head of the line at a crowded (and talented) position, Nelson is taking his five-star pedigree and bringing it to the starting lineup.
Jul 30, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
This spring, you’d have probably won some money if you had Sam Mustipher emerging as the No. 2 center. But with Matt Hegarty’s departure and some failed experiments before him, it was Mustipher who was backing up Nick Martin and snapping the ball to Everett Golson in a spring game played on Notre Dame’s practice field.
Jul 30, 2015, 1:47 PM EDT
Notre Dame opens the season ranked No. 11 in the preseason USA Today Amway Coaches Poll. The Irish, who finished last season 8-5, return the majority of their starting lineup, providing some context for the bullish expectations. Only Gus Malzahn’s Auburn team is ranked higher among teams that finished with five losses in 2014.
Jul 30, 2015, 12:45 PM EDT
Last year, we saw what a talented freshman linebacker in over his head looked like. His name was Nyles Morgan, and the blue-chip recruit personified the second-half defensive collapse that flushed the Irish season down the drain. Want the good part? Stick around, as Irish A-to-Z continues.
Jul 30, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
When Brian Kelly plucked offensive lineman John Montelus from his hometown of Everett, Massachusetts, the Irish looked to be adding another mauler to the interior of Harry Hiestand’s offensive line. And after two seasons of reshaping his body and learning the ropes, Montelus is in a competitive two-deep, still looking for a role in this offense.
Jul 29, 2015, 4:30 PM EDT
It didn’t take long for Notre Dame’s coaching staff to know they wanted to offer Peter Mokwuah. After getting a glimpse of the big-bodied defensive tackle, Brian VanGorder and Brian Kelly went to Staten Island and left with a key piece to the depth chart.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:11 PM EDT
We are a little more than a week away from the start of the 2015 football season. Notre Dame released their training camp schedule on Wednesday, highlighting the key dates leading up to the season opener against Texas.
Jul 29, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Entering his third year in the program, offensive lineman Colin McGovern hasn’t found his way into the lineup. That’s the product of a depth chart filled with other talented options, as well as McGovern dealing with injuries and position switches as he looks to find his niche.
Jul 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
Last preseason, Mike McGlinchey was the odd-man out along the offensive line, losing out on the opportunity to be the team’s starting right tackle. Entering 2015, he’s one of the key X factors that’ll determine whether or not Harry Hiestand’s offensive line is one of the best in the country.
Jul 29, 2015, 11:45 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s defense falling apart, second-year player Jacob Matuska was thrown into the fire, earning playing time after the first (and most of the second) line of defense went down. Let’s check on the rising junior as Irish A-to-Z rolls on.
Jul 28, 2015, 4:00 PM EDT
The first recruit to join the 2014 recruiting class, Greer Martini may have been envisioned as a 3-4 linebacker in Bob Diaco’s scheme, but he very quickly showed he could play anywhere the rebooted Irish defense needed him. Irish A-to-Z keeps on keepin’ on.
Jul 28, 2015, 12:44 PM EDT
While discussing Notre Dame’s “rivals” usually turns into some type of screaming hot-take opportunity, it’s undeniable that the Irish’s date with Boston College in Fenway Park is a wonderful place to renew a “rivalry” that’s gotten a lot less regular.
Jul 28, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
In his first season without his brother on campus, Nick Martin looked to make a name for himself. But 2014 was a battle for Martin, not just to escape the shadows of his All-Pro brother, but to regain his health after a lingering knee injury and a multitude of other ailments made the entire season a grind.
Jul 27, 2015, 3:02 PM EDT
Ready or not, Cole Luke was thrown into the deep end in 2014, forced into a starting role after KeiVarae Russell’s August suspension. Paired with Cody Riggs as the team’s field cornerback, Luke more than held his own as a sophomore starter, taking on one of the most challenging schedules in college football, with elite receivers testing the Irish secondary nearly every week.
Jul 27, 2015, 11:52 AM EDT
Looking for a sledgehammer in an offense that sometimes gets branded finesse? Look no further than tight end Tyler Luatua. The big-bodied thumper may not look like the rest of the tight end depth chart, but certainly will come in handy as the Irish do their best to transform into a run-to-win team in 2015.
Jul 26, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
The big news of the spring was supposed to be DeShone Kizer ascending to the job of holder on field goals and PATs. Instead, Kizer is one snap away from being Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, his development kick-started with Everett Golson’s decision to transfer.