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 25, 2015, 11:04 AM EDT
It’s a weekend edition of the mailbag. We talk about next year’s potential captains, the case for Malik Zaire’s intangibles, another date in SoCal and KeiVarae Russell’s return.
Apr 23, 2015, 11:24 AM EDT
In the first of a multi-part series, we take a look at the running back position post-spring. Here’s a look at the depth chart and stock report for an intriguing position.
Apr 22, 2015, 6:43 PM EDT
Want to recap spring football or the Blue-Gold game? Drop your questions below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Apr 21, 2015, 3:30 PM EDT
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. And spring games are always a double-edged sword. Let’s take a look at the good (bad and ugly) from the 86th annual Blue-Gold game.
Apr 20, 2015, 3:49 PM EDT
Spring practice is in the books. The Blue-Gold game is history. (Not here, we’ll talk about that thing all week…) So after a frantic few months in the Gug, the focus of Notre Dame’s rebuilt offensive staff can change from planning practices to… planning—well, just about everything.
Apr 20, 2015, 8:00 AM EDT
While the Blue-Gold game captured most of the headlines this weekend, the biggest victory for Brian Kelly was over Urban Meyer on the recruiting trail. On Sunday, touted Ohio offensive lineman Liam Eichenberg committed to the Irish, just hours after leaving an unofficial visit to Columbus.
Apr 18, 2015, 3:40 PM EDT
On a perfect day in South Bend, Notre Dame capped off spring practice with a perfect Blue-Gold game. Let’s go over the five things we learned in the defense’s 36-34 victory.
Apr 18, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT
You’ve come to the right place if you’re looking to stream the 86th annual Blue-Gold game.
Apr 18, 2015, 10:13 AM EDT
It’s a spring game everybody can get behind, as Notre Dame’s guaranteed to end this Saturday a winner. With the Blue-Gold game taking place on the LaBar Practice Fields, let’s get ready with the Pregame Six Pack.
Apr 18, 2015, 12:38 AM EDT
With Notre Dame’s annual spring game kicked out of the stadium with massive renovations underway, the Irish are taking to the LaBar practice fields to play on Saturday. But NBCSN will be there to broadcast, and the livestream of the game is also available for you.
Apr 17, 2015, 12:55 AM EDT
With the Blue-Gold game set for Saturday afternoon on NBCSN, spring practice comes to an end with a rare opportunity to see Notre Dame faceoff against itself in a live scrimmage. Keith & JJ talk about some of the spring game’s storylines.
Apr 16, 2015, 11:50 AM EDT
For the first time in over a decade, Notre Dame has a roster crunch. As Notre Dame’s fifth-year candidates submit their applications to the university, Brian Kelly plans on moving forward and using every minute he has to figure out his roster.
Apr 15, 2015, 1:30 PM EDT
Notre Dame released the official rules and format for the 86th annual Blue-Gold game. As the LaBar Practice Fields transform to house an intimate live viewing audience, an elite group of recruits and a NBCSN television production, let’s get the basics down as we begin to dig deeper into the spring finale.
Apr 15, 2015, 12:13 PM EDT
With Notre Dame Stadium under construction, this was already going to be a different kind of Blue-Gold game. But when Brian Kelly announced that quarterbacks Everett Golson and Malik Zaire were going to be live for the first half, he confirmed it.
Apr 15, 2015, 10:31 AM EDT
When Notre Dame plays Boston College this November in Fenway Park, tickets will be hard to come by. But for BC fans looking for a ticket through the Eagles’ athletic department, they better bring their savings accounts.
Apr 14, 2015, 6:14 PM EDT
2016 defensive end Julian Okwara committed to Notre Dame on Tuesday evening, following in the footsteps of his brother Romeo.
Apr 14, 2015, 12:05 PM EDT
Most thought C.J. Prosise spending spring practice working with the running backs was a contingency plan—finding a capable body to split carries with Tarean Folston and Greg Bryant. But Prosise has emerged as a true wildcard in the Irish offense, with Brian Kelly looking for new ways to get the football in the 220-pounder’s hands.
Apr 13, 2015, 11:49 AM EDT
Brian Kelly can’t be sure that Everett Golson will be here in 2015. But after 25 years of coaching college football, Notre Dame’s head coach feels like Golson’s actions are speaking for themselves.
Apr 12, 2015, 1:29 PM EDT
With a big scrimmage on Saturday to get to and a Sunday at Augusta around the corner, let’s get to some mailbag questions.
Apr 11, 2015, 3:09 PM EDT
When Jarrett Grace broke his leg in four places, the linebacker’s career nearly ended. Eighteen months later, Grace is back on the field, and back a part of the master plans for the Irish defense.
- The good, the bad and the ugly: The 86th annual Blue-Gold game 60
- Five things we learned: Gold 36, Blue 34 76
- Pregame Six Pack: Finishing spring practice strong 3
- Even without guarantee, Kelly expects Golson to return next season 107
- Grace opens up about the long road back 44
- Irish QB battle with (understandably) head into fall camp 12