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.
Dec 24, 2014, 12:00 PM EST
Dallas Cowboys rookie Zack Martin was named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday, the only offensive rookie selected to the game and one of six Cowboys. Martin has started all season at right guard for one of the NFL’s best rushing attacks.
Dec 24, 2014, 9:30 AM EST
Tommy Rees will begin his coaching career close to where his football career began. Rees, who played in all four of his seasons at Notre Dame from 2010-13, will be an offensive graduate assistant at Northwestern.
Dec 24, 2014, 1:01 AM EST
It appears that Brian Kelly has added another key piece to his football program. The Los Angeles Times reports Notre Dame has hired former Green Bay Packer and UCLA running back Johnathan Franklin to join the staff in an administrative role, focusing on student welfare and development.
Dec 23, 2014, 10:00 AM EST
As we continue our final rankings of the 2014 season, numbers 20-16 continues to showcase the youth on the roster.
Dec 22, 2014, 12:32 PM EST
With a little over a week to go until the Irish take on LSU in the Music City Bowl, it’s time to take a look back at the regular season. Our first five spots on the year-end Top 25 roll out.
Dec 21, 2014, 4:35 PM EST
After a mailbag goes missing, the Inside the Irish crew go looking for answers. That and other solutions in this week’s mailbag.
Dec 20, 2014, 4:50 PM EST
Brian Kelly met with the local media on Saturday afternoon, delivering good news on the status of two key veteran defenders. Both defensive tackle Sheldon Day and cornerback Cody Riggs are on track to start against LSU, adding a few key pieces back into the puzzle.
Dec 19, 2014, 11:59 AM EST
Notre Dame solidified its safety depth chart by going for a homegrown solution. The Irish offered Indianapolis Warren Central safety Mykelti Williams yesterday, and today the four-star prospect made the decision official by committing to Notre Dame.
Dec 19, 2014, 11:27 AM EST
Notre Dame’s inclusion in the ACC’s bowl selections came in handy this year. As the Irish back-slid throughout November, they still held onto some preferred real estate, finding themselves in a pretty nice consolation game, with the opportunity to play in Nashville in the Music City Bowl.
Carter Bryant gets us ready for LSU.
Dec 18, 2014, 2:38 PM EST
Sophomores Jaylon Smith and Will Fuller have earned more kudos than just their defensive and offensive player of the year Echoes. Both have received mention for year-end All-American awards.
Dec 18, 2014, 1:17 PM EST
While most eyes are focused on the battle at quarterback between Everett Golson and Malik Zaire, the preparations for LSU will also be critical along the offensive line. The extra practices will give Brian Kelly and Harry Hiestand time to evaluate their starting five, with changes that could have both short and long-term impacts.
Dec 17, 2014, 4:24 PM EST
Any new questions? Ones that I’ve avoided? Last minute Christmas ideas? Drop them in the comments below or on Twitter @KeithArnold.
Dec 17, 2014, 12:29 PM EST
Monday UND.com premiered the short film “Blind Faith.” Directed by Notre Dame graduate Greg Kohs, the documentary follows a blind eighth grade boy making his first visit to Notre Dame Stadium.
Dec 16, 2014, 11:40 AM EST
Brian Kelly will play two quarterbacks against LSU, with both senior Everett Golson and sophomore Malik Zaire getting an opportunity to take on the LSU in the Music City Bowl. After a regular season where Golson served as the starter all 12 games with Zaire only seeing significant action against USC in the finale, both will be utilized in the Irish’s offensive game plan.
Dec 15, 2014, 4:52 PM EST
Notre Dame junior offensive tackle Ronnie Stanley walked off the stage Friday night with the team’s Lineman of the Year Award. He’s still uncertain if it’s the last time he’ll take part in the season-ending festivities.
Dec 15, 2014, 3:37 PM EST
This August, a group of people who spend way too much time watching and writing about Notre Dame football got together to put together some preseason rankings on the roster. In doing so, we (I’m definitely included) put in writing what so many of you (especially in the comments) already thought was true: We don’t know what we’re talking about sometimes.
Dec 13, 2014, 12:11 PM EST
Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt was named the 2014 team’s MVP on Saturday night, honored by his teammates with the top award at Notre Dame’s year-end awards show. Hosted by NBC’s Mike Mayock and WNBA star Skylar Diggins, “The Echoes” withstood a building-clearing plumbing issue to hand out 16 awards.
Dec 12, 2014, 10:40 AM EST
Notre Dame’s regular season may be over. The Irish’s recruiting class — one many thought would cap itself around 20 — is already at 21 commits. Get ready for a busy weekend on campus.
Dec 10, 2014, 9:49 PM EST
Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick finds himself in the news on another roller coaster day in college athletics. And while it isn’t about a coaching change (another job opening under Barry Alvarez!) or another critique of the College Football Playoff, Swarbrick found himself speaking openly — and rather candidly — about compensating student-athletes, and the perilous position college athletic departments now find themselves in.
Dec 10, 2014, 12:59 PM EST
Drop your questions below. Or on Twitter @KeithArnold.