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.
Jul 7, 2015, 11:58 AM EDT
Camp counselor or participant? Those watching Malik Zaire at The Opening were struggling to figure that out.
Jul 7, 2015, 9:45 AM EDT
One of the most important pieces of the offseason came when Sheldon Day decided to return to South Bend for his senior season. Day made the choice after a well-chronicled re-recruitment, with Notre Dame’s coaching staff and athletic director Jack Swarbrick laying out for Day the benefits of returning, including a school-supplied insurance policy.
Jul 6, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
As it does annually, Notre Dame’s game with Navy is a terrifying proposition. While the Irish haven’t lost to Ken Niumatalolo’s team since 2010, the Midshipmen have pushed the Irish to the max—and the Navy hangover is beginning to be a thing. The Washington Post’s Gene Wang joins us for an offseason update.
Jul 3, 2015, 10:00 AM EDT
Anonymous long-snappers are the best kind of long snappers. And for the better part of two seasons, Scott Daly was exactly that. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at a man who is no longer anonymous.
Jul 2, 2015, 1:05 PM EDT
Notre Dame’s 2016 recruiting class added a big commitment from Florida offensive lineman Parker Boudreaux today. One of the country’s top interior linemen chose Notre Dame in a online video done in collaboration with Bleacher Report.
Jul 2, 2015, 11:11 AM EDT
Great football players come in all shapes and sizes. Incoming freshman Shaun Crawford will likely prove that. The diminutive cornerback comes to South Bend looking to make a big impact.
Jul 1, 2015, 2:30 PM EDT
When you look at Notre Dame’s 2015 schedule, it’s hard to skip past the Irish’s trip to Clemson. Returning to Death Valley for the first time since Joe Montana led a comeback victory in 1977, Brian Kelly’s squad will take on Dabo Swinney’s impressive team, the makings of a football game with College Football Playoff implications. Shakin’ the Southland’s Brian Lewis gets us up to speed.
Jul 1, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
While Jerry Tillery stole the headlines, fellow classmate Te’von Coney more than held his own this spring. The linebacker may have entered a packed depth chart at linebacker, but he solidified his place as a key cog in the future plans of Notre Dame’s defense.
Jun 30, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
Hailing from the same high school that brought the Irish Malik Zaire, incoming freshman Nick Coleman looks to infuse the same type of unlikely toughness to the secondary that Zaire brings to the quarterback position. Irish A-to-Z rolls on.
Jun 30, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Irish A-to-Z continues with Amir Carlisle. The winding on-field journey for the fifth year senior ends in 2015.
Jun 29, 2015, 6:00 PM EDT
Florida safety Spencer Perry committed to Notre Dame on Monday, a week after visiting campus for the Irish Invasion camp. The move followed Perry’s de-commitment from in-state power Florida, taking the 6-foot-3, 200-pounder from a Gator pledge to a member of Notre Dame’s rapidly growing 2016 recruiting class.
Jun 29, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
One of the last members of Notre Dame’s 2014 recruiting class was one of the first people to make an impact on the field. Defensive tackle Daniel Cage is next in Irish A-to-Z.
Jun 29, 2015, 11:32 AM EDT
News broke Monday morning that running back Greg Bryant will be suspended for the first four games of the season. As first-reported by Irish 247, Bryant will miss a quarter of the regular season based on the dreaded-and-ambiguous “violation of team rules,” thinning a running back depth chart that was already down to just Bryant, returning starter Tarean Folston and converted wide receiver C.J. Prosise.
Jun 29, 2015, 9:00 AM EDT
Like the rest of his classmates along the offensive line, Jimmy Byrne spent 2014 learning the ropes and hitting the weight room. Redshirt off, Irish A-to-Z continues with the Ohio native.
Jun 26, 2015, 10:28 PM EDT
Texas tight end Brock Wright has committed to Notre Dame, adding another elite recruit to the Irish tight end pipeline. Wright is a 2017 prospect who camped in South Bend last week for Irish Invasion.
Jun 26, 2015, 2:00 PM EDT
With KeiVarae Russell suspended and Cody Riggs hurt, Devin Butler got his chance to be a starting cornerback. It wasn’t necessarily a positive experience. We look ahead to an important season for the junior defensive back.
Jun 26, 2015, 11:07 AM EDT
After a difficult three-game stretch to start Notre Dame’s season, the Irish will welcome UMass to South Bend, a game that was originally intended to match up former Irish offensive coordinator Charley Molnar with his previous employer.
Jun 25, 2015, 6:07 PM EDT
An Irish Illustrated report says that Notre Dame might add a piece to the 2016 recruiting class, with touted offensive lineman and one-time Ohio State commit Mirko Jurkovic Jr. in the crosshairs.
Jun 25, 2015, 2:24 PM EDT
Greg Bryant has yet to play up to the 5-star status he entered South Bend possessing. Now for the good news: He’s got three more seasons to try.
Jun 24, 2015, 4:44 PM EDT
Chris Brown enters his senior season in South Bend, still looking to build on a magical start. Irish A-to-Z rolls along, knowing that we’ve got a long way to go before the start of the season.