Dec 24, 2012, 2:13 PM EST
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.
Jan 30, 2015, 12:21 PM EST
Notre Dame welcomes safety prospect Arrington Farrar to campus this weekend. The Irish coaching staff finishes up a chaotic cross-country week visiting prospects both committed and interested (and some somewhere in between).
Jan 29, 2015, 1:37 PM EST
The ACC announced their 2015 conference football schedule. And the six dates with Notre Dame seem to take center stage.
Jan 28, 2015, 2:55 PM EST
Kendall Moore’s football career did not end as planned. The fifth-year senior never saw the playing field after being pulled from the team in August as part of an academic dishonesty probe that kept DaVaris Daniels, KeiVarae Russell and Ishaq Williams out for the 2014 season — and school year — as well. (Eilar Hardy returned to the team in late October.)
Jan 28, 2015, 2:24 PM EST
Brian Kelly took a trip to Atlanta and made his in-home visit to see safety Arrington Farrar. Things went so well that Farrar decided to take his final official visit before Signing Day to South Bend.
Jan 27, 2015, 4:55 PM EST
Notre Dame strength coach Paul Longo has a new lieutenant. And he’s crossed enemy lines to join the Irish staff.
Jan 26, 2015, 11:26 AM EST
Notre Dame has a final need in their recruiting class. And over the weekend, they sold Louisiana safety Justin Reid that he could fill it.
Jan 25, 2015, 2:28 PM EST
A special Sunday delivery of the Mailbag. Let’s get to some questions.
Jan 25, 2015, 11:16 AM EST
Safety Eilar Hardy will finish his college football career elsewhere. After four seasons in South Bend, Hardy will earn his Notre Dame degree and be free to play out his eligibility in another program.
Jan 23, 2015, 1:04 PM EST
With less than two weeks to go before Signing Day, recruiting is the focus for the Irish coaching staff. But as we crack open the mailbag, we cover a bit more ground than the usual will-he or won’t-he that comes along with the first Wednesday in February.
Jan 22, 2015, 11:32 AM EST
One of Notre Dame’s long-time verbal commitments is no longer planning on joining the Irish’s 2015 recruiting class. Texas safety Prentice McKinney took an official visit to North Carolina last weekend and flipped his commitment to Larry Fedora’s Tar Heels on Wednesday, dropping Notre Dame’s recruiting class down to 22 players and just two safeties.
Jan 21, 2015, 9:51 PM EST
Can we follow up last week’s excellence with another solid week of questions? Drop them below or @KeithArnold.
Jan 21, 2015, 1:43 PM EST
While the Irish coaching staff traverses the country taking in-home visits, Notre Dame’s staff is close to putting the finishing touches on a stellar recruiting class. The additional of Aliz’e Jones pushes the Irish into a consensus Top 10 class — quite an accomplishment considering this was supposed to be a smaller group.
Jan 20, 2015, 12:29 AM EST
Star-crossed Notre Dame wide receiver DaVaris Daniels’ career with the Irish is over. After two seasons and two significant suspensions, Daniels decided to forgo any additional eligibility he has at the college level and turn professional.
Jan 19, 2015, 3:00 PM EST
Say this for Brian Kelly. He learns from his mistakes.
And after losing Stephon Tuitt and Troy Niklas after just three seasons in South Bend, Notre Dame’s head coach made sure he had a final say before Ronnie Stanley and Sheldon Day made their stay-or-go decision.
Jan 19, 2015, 1:44 PM EST
KeiVarae Russell gives a promising update on his future in South Bend via (where else?) social media.
Jan 16, 2015, 1:04 PM EST
Lots to discuss in our Friday mailbag. Position changes, 85 scholarships, Reggie Ho and more.
(Collective thumbs up to all of you.)
Jan 15, 2015, 2:51 PM EST
After being committed to UCLA for months, Las Vegas tight end Alize Jones has flipped his pledge to Notre Dame. The bluechip recruit is widely acknowledged to be the best tight end in the country and plays high school football with current Irish commit Nicco Fertitta at Bishop Gorman.
Jan 15, 2015, 2:19 PM EST
The first College Football Playoff is over. And with less than three weeks to go before National Signing Day, the dead period has ended and the home stretch in recruiting has begun.
Jan 14, 2015, 10:45 AM EST
There’s plenty to talk about. Have a question? Drop it below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Jan 13, 2015, 7:00 PM EST
Notre Dame junior Ronnie Stanley announced Tuesday that he will return for his senior season, giving the Irish one of the best left tackles in college football for another season. After being projected by some as a first round pick, Stanley made the decision to return for 2015.