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 30, 2014, 2:30 PM EDT
The live blog is back for another season of Notre Dame football. While most of your favorite writers are watching the game and taking notes, I’m here chatting it up with a few thousand of my closest friends. And we wouldn’t have it any other way.
Aug 30, 2014, 11:39 AM EDT
Before we get to the action on the field, the NDonNBC crew spent some time on campus and produced a few cool features to help kickoff the season.
Aug 30, 2014, 12:43 AM EDT
Consider this a public service announcement for all of those unable to get in front of a TV this afternoon. If you’re stuck at work or on the road over Labor Day weekend, we’ve got you covered to watch the game.
Aug 29, 2014, 5:46 PM EDT
Putting up a better fight for the starting quarterback job than anyone expected, sophomore Malik Zaire reminded many Irish fans that he’s more than just an afterthought in the program. Irish A-to-Z concludes with a look at Notre Dame’s backup quarterback.
Aug 29, 2014, 3:45 PM EDT
Arriving late on the scene during the recruiting cycle, Notre Dame looks like they found a good one in freshman Jhonny Williams. Irish A-to-Z takes a look at the local defensive end, who shows early promise as a pass rusher.
Aug 29, 2014, 2:08 PM EDT
Happy Labor Day weekend, everybody. Here’s hoping you’re spending the holiday with friends, family… and some long-awaited college football. Before we get to the game tomorrow, let’s clean out our first regular season mailbag.
Aug 29, 2014, 12:34 AM EDT
That took long enough, didn’t it? After far too long, football is back. With a preseason camp that the Irish survived mostly healthy, the biggest hits came off the field. As an academic investigation claimed its fifth player Thursday, let’s run through the Pregame Six Pack to get you ready for Saturday’s kickoff.
Aug 28, 2014, 7:42 PM EDT
The look of Notre Dame’s defensive line changed drastically when senior Ishaq Williams was suspended indefinitely for his role in the academic dishonesty case now pending at the university level. Irish A-to-Z takes a closer look at the one-time five-star recruit.
Aug 28, 2014, 5:46 PM EDT
It appears that Notre Dame’s internal investigation surrounding academic dishonesty charges is nearing a close. But before it gets there, one additional player will be held out of practice and from competition this Saturday.
Aug 28, 2014, 3:55 PM EDT
Busy prepping for her debut as NBC’s sideline reporter for Notre Dame football, NBC Sports Group’s Kathryn Tappen was nice enough to catch up with me before the season begins.
Aug 28, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
With Notre Dame on a roll at tight end, freshman Nic Weishar enters “Tight End U” trying to make a name for himself. Irish A-to-Z looks at the Chicagoland tight end.
Aug 28, 2014, 12:34 PM EDT
As most hard-core recruiting fans notice Brian VanGorder’s willingness to break the mold when it comes to recruiting, freshman cornerback Nick Watkins looks the part of a perfect prototype. Irish A-to-Z continues with a look at the newest blue-chipper in the secondary.
Aug 28, 2014, 11:52 AM EDT
Brian Kelly appeared on the Dan Patrick show this morning and shed some light on the academic investigation that’s holding out DaVaris Daniels, Kendall Moore, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams.
Aug 27, 2014, 8:10 PM EDT
Entering his fifth year in Notre Dame’s football program, grad student Justin Utupo is still looking to find a role in the Irish defense. Irish A-to-Z continues with the reserve defensive lineman.
Aug 27, 2014, 3:02 PM EDT
After being buried on the safety depth chart, junior John Turner became one of the talks of spring practice when he moved from forgotten man to a potential starter at outside linebacker. Irish A-to-Z looks at the unlikely outside linebacker.
Aug 27, 2014, 12:16 PM EDT
The season is finally here. Got questions before the opener? Drop them in the comments or over on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Aug 27, 2014, 12:15 PM EDT
Notre Dame opens the 2014 season with a visit from Rice on Saturday afternoon. While on paper, a matchup with the Conference USA squad looks like it could be a good way to get the rust off, taking the Owls lightly would be a large mistake. The Houston Chronicle’s Joseph Duarte gets us ready for Rice.
Aug 26, 2014, 8:38 PM EDT
Brian Kelly announced his captains for the 2014 season, naming safety Austin Collinsworth, defensive lineman Sheldon Day, center Nick Martin and running back Cam McDaniel his four leaders for the upcoming season.
Aug 26, 2014, 5:32 PM EDT
After enrolling early this winter, Andrew Trumbetti has forced his way into the starting lineup. Irish A-to-Z looks at the freshman defensive end slated to start against Rice.
Aug 26, 2014, 1:50 PM EDT
When Brian Kelly leads Notre Dame out of the tunnel to open the 2014 season on Saturday afternoon, he’ll be leading his youngest and most inexperienced team into battle on the new artificial surface of Notre Dame Stadium. He’ll also be short three key starters, still left in limbo as an academic investigation and Honor Code ruling continues.