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.
Apr 23, 2014, 8:14 PM EDT
Notre Dame closed out their offensive line recruiting on Wednesday, accepting the verbal commitment of Illinois offensive lineman Trevor Ruhland. The 6-foot-4, 270-pounder chose the Irish over offers from Cal, Duke, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Vanderbilt.
Apr 23, 2014, 1:46 PM EDT
Florida transfer Cody Riggs has one season to make an impact at Notre Dame. And he has a great opportunity to do it.
Apr 21, 2014, 10:59 AM EDT
Suspended wide receiver DaVaris Daniels has spent the semester away from the university and football program, after falling behind academically. Daniels found out the news on his way to the Pinstripe Bowl, a fitting ending to a challenging season that saw Daniels improve statistically, but battle injuries and inefficiency.
Apr 18, 2014, 12:36 PM EDT
Brian VanGorder’s new defense turned spring practice into a reboot of the defense. Replacing key members of the front seven and changing schemes made for an important 15 practices. Let’s take a look at the post-spring practice depth chart.
Apr 17, 2014, 1:08 PM EDT
The Blue-Gold game is done and spring’s 15 practices are complete. With Easter break around the corner and summer workouts still a few months away, let’s take a look at the moves and shakes on the Irish offensive depth chart.
Apr 15, 2014, 1:40 PM EDT
Making an impact during a spring game is always a good thing. But sometimes, the not making one is a good thing, too. The core of the Irish defense didn’t play a lot in the Blue-Gold game.
Apr 14, 2014, 2:59 PM EDT
Spring football is done, with the Blue-Gold game already in the rearview mirror. Let’s recap Saturday’s festivities with a look at the good, the bad and the ugly from the offense’s 63-58 win.
Apr 13, 2014, 7:15 PM EDT
During the first half of the Blue-Gold game, athletic director Jack Swarbrick joined Alex Flanagan on television to break the game’s biggest news. After years of struggling to maintain the natural grass surface inside Notre Dame Stadium, the university will be installing a synthetic surface inside the stadium.
Apr 12, 2014, 3:41 PM EDT
A new quarterback depth chart. A new surface coming to Notre Dame Stadium. Unseen weapons making their presence felt all afternoon. There are plenty of takeaways from the 85th annual Blue-Gold game.
Apr 12, 2014, 12:07 PM EDT
It feels like forever since we gathered in late December to watch the Irish finish the season in rather painful fashion against Rutgers in the House that Steinbrenner built. But we’re back for the 85th annual Blue-Gold game, and another live blog of the festivities.
Apr 12, 2014, 12:59 AM EDT
It’s the final practice for the Irish until they return to the field for fall camp in August. With kickoff scheduled for 12:30 p.m. EDT, you can watch the game on NBCSN or via the steaming link below.
Apr 11, 2014, 1:07 PM EDT
Spring is here. Football is in Notre Dame Stadium. As the Irish get ready to do battle in the 85th annual Blue-Gold game, here’s a pregame six pack to get your ready for the action.
Apr 10, 2014, 4:57 PM EDT
As Notre Dame tries to replace long-time starters Zack Martin and Chris Watt, Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand are still tinkering with finding their five best offensive linemen.
Apr 9, 2014, 2:31 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s Blue-Gold game scheduled for this Saturday, we’re taking a closer look at 10 players you need to watch.
Apr 8, 2014, 1:53 PM EDT
After finalizing an ACC scheduling pact that begins in 2014, a CBS Sports report has Notre Dame and Georgia on the verge of agreeing to a home-and-home series that begins in 2018.
Apr 7, 2014, 4:10 PM EDT
Nobody will confuse Saturday’s Blue-Gold game with a real football game. But for the first time since that fateful January night against Alabama, Everett Golson will be taking snaps that count.
Apr 5, 2014, 10:15 PM EDT
Notre Dame received their sixth recruiting commitment of the 2015 class on Saturday, with Las Vegas safety Nicco Fertitta pledging to the Irish. He’s the third recruit to pick Notre Dame in the last week.
Apr 4, 2014, 8:32 PM EDT
After two practices outside, the Irish head back inside Loftus, for another practice in their friendly indoor facility. Here’s your overly in-depth look at the latest (and final) UND.com practice video from April 4.
Apr 4, 2014, 12:04 PM EDT
Brian Kelly announced Friday that rising sophomore cornerback Rashad Kinlaw has been dismissed from the Irish football program.
Apr 3, 2014, 1:44 PM EDT
Tasked with installing a new system and replacing potential first round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, Mike Elston has a lot on his plate this spring. Made available to the media on Wednesday, Elston gave us a progress report.