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 20, 2015, 2:51 PM EDT
Monday, Notre Dame announced that 16 student-athletes would be spending three weeks in South Africa, earning credits in a new study abroad program examining the cultural, historical and social effects racism has had on South Africa. Five more will be going to Greece, learning about archaeological sites and museums in Ancient Corinth.
May 20, 2015, 1:17 PM EDT
If you were looking for anything official out of Notre Dame after Everett Golson announced his intention to play next season at Florida State, think again. But yesterday, Brian Kelly was the head speaker at the ninth annual West Michigan Sports Commission Luncheon in Grand Rapids, and he shared a few comments about the move.
May 19, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
After graduating from Notre Dame over the weekend, Everett Golson has decided to play out his eligibility at Florida State. The former Irish quarterback visited Tallahassee last week before coming to a decision on Tuesday morning, according to Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman.
May 19, 2015, 12:37 PM EDT
In a profile with Sports Illustrated, KeiVarae Russell spoke on the record about his departure from Notre Dame, his impending return, and the motivations that push him.
May 18, 2015, 2:35 PM EDT
In a one-question, part-two of the mailbag, a reader points out one of the most important factors entering the 2015 season: Brian VanGorder’s defense.
May 15, 2015, 9:18 AM EDT
For as much as we’re ready to move on from the quarterback talk… we’re not really ready to move on from the quarterback talk.
May 14, 2015, 11:41 AM EDT
We close out our post-spring stock reports with a look at the defensive line.
May 13, 2015, 2:47 PM EDT
For all the attention paid to Everett Golson’s decision to leave Notre Dame, the Irish might be welcoming back an even better football player when KeiVarae Russell returns this June.
May 13, 2015, 11:12 AM EDT
The mailbag is open. Also, a quick bit of housekeeping as we address some problems in the comments.
May 12, 2015, 2:03 AM EDT
First came the news that Everett Golson was leaving. Now comes the circus, as we take to the rumor mill to speculate where Golson ends up.
May 11, 2015, 12:18 PM EDT
We continue our look at the post-spring depth charts with the linebackers. A talented group of athletes might provide one of the most misleading depth charts in recent memory.
May 9, 2015, 2:36 PM EDT
Just to get our mind off the big quarterback news. Let’s tackle a few mailbag questions… that don’t talk about the guys playing behind center.
May 8, 2015, 1:51 PM EDT
The dust has settled. Everett Golson is leaving Notre Dame. So while the rest of the story will take chase—the wheres and the whys eventually coming out—the only thing that’s important for the Irish is looking at what remains, and how the program moves on from here.
May 7, 2015, 7:11 PM EDT
Incoming freshman defensive end Bo Wallace tweeted that he’s no longer going to attend Notre Dame.
May 7, 2015, 1:48 PM EDT
It’s official: Everett Golson is transferring.
May 7, 2015, 1:37 PM EDT
With finals nearly finished and Everett Golson on track to earn his degree in the coming weeks, ESPN’s Brett McMurphy broke the news that Irish fans had to be dreading.
May 6, 2015, 3:40 PM EDT
One of the branches on Notre Dame’s NFL tight end tree is retiring. Former Irish star John Carlson, a former second-round pick who spent seven seasons as a professional, is stepping away from football. Carlson played for the Irish from 2003-07 and spent time with the Seahawks, Vikings and the Cardinals.
May 6, 2015, 11:08 AM EDT
The mailbag is open. Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
May 5, 2015, 12:43 PM EDT
With the majority of Notre Dame’s starting lineup returning for 2015, the Irish spent spring practice knowing what their team would look like. But for Brian VanGorder and new secondary coach Todd Lyght, getting improvement out of the returning depth chart was critical.
May 4, 2015, 4:55 PM EDT
When Brian Kelly hired Boise State offensive coordinator Mike Sanford, Notre Dame added a young coach who was among the hottest rising stars in the country. A year after flirting with Lincoln Riley and eventually deciding on staying in-house as Mike Denbrock took over the offense, Kelly went outside his coaching circle, adding Sanford to the staff, an assistant who could “turn the room upside down.”
- After high-profile academic mistakes, Notre Dame wisely examining new options 17
- Everett Golson transferring to Florida State 101
- KeiVarae Russell’s Return (or the greatest story we’re not talking about) 31
- Five things we’ve learned: Analyzing Everett Golson’s departure 125
- It’s official: Everett Golson will transfer (UPDATED) 171
- ESPN Report: Golson plans to transfer 18