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.
Mar 8, 2014, 2:23 PM EDT
After getting our first taste of spring ball, we’re going to have to wait two weeks for practice No. 3. While it’ll give South Bend a chance to thaw, it’s leaving all of us in a lurch. So let’s get caught up on some recruiting. Notre Dame held its first Junior Day last weekend, entertaining…
Mar 6, 2014, 12:08 PM EDT
As we look for subplots to cover with practice now on a two-week hiatus, the schedule of this “spring’s” 15 sessions is definitely worth discussing. It’s no secret that football coaches are creatures of habit. So it’s likely that a ton of thought went into determining the unorthodox set-up for the Irish’s 15 critical workouts. Planning for…
Mar 5, 2014, 11:33 PM EDT
The Fighting Irish took the field Wednesday morning for their second session of spring practice. With two weeks off and the university’s spring break sandwiched between practice two and three, it’s certainly an interesting time for the football program to get work done. Yet it’s clear that there’s work to be done and the team…
Mar 4, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT
There was no question that by the end of the 2013 season, Notre Dame’s coverage teams were a mess. The product of a ravaged depth chart, the Irish were miserable covering kicks, likely a deadly mix of mismatched personnel and some questionable schemes. After a commitment to putting better players on the special teams units…
Mar 3, 2014, 8:40 PM EDT
Well, it’s finally that time of year. (Again.) Let’s get to over-analyzing UND.com practice videos! With the Irish taking the practice field bright and early Monday morning, our friends at UND.com released their first practice video of the new year. Let’s spend an unhealthy amount of time talking about what we see here: Enjoy. 0:06…
Mar 3, 2014, 4:29 PM EDT
Everett Golson is finally back where he belongs. After a season away from the Irish, Golson took his first snaps with the football program Monday morning and addressed the media after the team’s first spring practice. While he didn’t want to rehash the situation that forced him away from the program for a season, Golson…
Mar 1, 2014, 6:24 PM EDT
In addition to Brian Kelly’s opening press conference, UND.com brought us a behind the scenes peek at winter workouts. With some footage from Camp Kelly, a few epic tire fights, and a whole lot of sweat, steam, and hard work, it’s a fun watch and good update on the team’s progress since the bowl game.…
Feb 28, 2014, 9:55 PM EDT
It was a slightly more newsworthy opening press conference than you might expect from Brian Kelly. While the usual introductory remarks were certainly there, Kelly also broke a fair amount of news as the 2014 Irish begin their work in earnest. We’ve already talked about the tweaks to the coaching staff. But some significant roster…
Feb 28, 2014, 4:35 PM EDT
It didn’t feel like spring this morning in South Bend when Brian Kelly started his car, the temperature well below zero as the Irish head coach headed to the Gug. But after a week skiing with his family, Notre Dame’s fifth-year head coach prepares to start one of the more unique spring schedules he’s ever…
Feb 27, 2014, 4:09 PM EDT
No unit in the country is looking at bigger shoes to fill than Notre Dame’s defensive front. Gone are Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt, two once-in-a-decade talents who left South Bend after injury plagued and underachieving seasons. With injuries marring the development of linemen young and old, there’s no question that the defensive line is…
Feb 27, 2014, 3:24 PM EDT
With Brian Kelly set to kickoff spring football tomorrow, one of his key players not taking part in practice opened up about life away from Notre Dame. DaVaris Daniels, the Irish’s leading returning receiver, is away from school after failing to achieve a 2.0 grade-point-average during the fall semester. He spoke with CBS Sports’ Jeremy…
Feb 26, 2014, 4:40 PM EDT
Notre Dame had nine players at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. To a man, they all left town improving their proverbial draft stock. We’ve already touched on what the nine-man Irish contingency meant to the football program. Speed, strength and athleticism were on display by Irish prospects, with statistical gains under Paul Longo’s direction…
Feb 25, 2014, 7:31 PM EDT
Notre Dame headed into last season without a All-American candidate to catch the football. After a pretty incredible run at the position — from Jeff Samardzija-to-Golden Tate-to-Kyle Rudolph-to-Michael Floyd-to-Tyler Eifert — the Irish had TJ Jones to anchor the position, a solid yet far from spectacular veteran receiver. Jones flourished in his final season in…
Feb 24, 2014, 1:56 PM EDT
One of the more competitive positions on the Irish depth chart has 15 practices to gain some clarity. Running backs coach Tony Alford has one of the deepest position groups to sort through this spring, though the unit is still looking for a breakout star at the position. While rising sophomore Tarean Folston showed some…
Feb 24, 2014, 2:13 AM EDT
After reaching his weight loss goals for the NFL Scouting Combine, Stephon Tuitt suffered a setback in his quest to be taken in the NFL Draft’s first round. The former Irish defensive end has a small fracture in his left foot, according to a report by NFL.com. According to the report, Tuitt won’t work out…
Feb 23, 2014, 1:16 PM EDT
Former Notre Dame linebacker Prince Shembo spoke publicly for the first time about the death of Lizzy Seeberg, a former St. Mary’s student who committed suicide a week after accusing a Notre Dame football player of a sexual attack. While the player’s name had stayed anonymous in media reports, Shembo acknowledged that he was the…
Feb 21, 2014, 5:54 PM EDT
Notre Dame has set the home kickoff times for 2014. And before Michigan goes off the Irish schedule for the immediate future, they’ll play one more time in primetime. The evening kickoff at Notre Dame Stadium is the highlight of the home 2014 slate, with the Irish also playing their Shamrock Series game against Purdue…
Feb 19, 2014, 4:04 PM EDT
Yesterday, Mike Mayock hosted a conference call with reporters to discuss NFL Draft prospects. The NFL Network draft analyst, who also calls Notre Dame football games with Dan Hicks, held a marathon conference call, a multi-hour event that showcased Mayock’s ridiculous knowledge base. Throughout the call, Mayock talked about various Notre Dame players that will…
Feb 19, 2014, 11:57 AM EDT
Brian Kelly and the Notre Dame sports information department officially announced the addition of Florida defensive back Cody Riggs. The graduate school transfer will join the Irish in summer school and play out his eligibility next season at Notre Dame. The 5-foot-9, 190-pound defensive back signed a scholarship agreement with Notre Dame. Riggs played 40…
Feb 18, 2014, 1:22 PM EDT
After a year where everything seemingly went wrong at quarterback, it appears that things are on track to get back to normal. In the span of a calendar year, Notre Dame has had immense turnover at the quarterback position. Consider this snapshot heading into spring practice last year: Everett Golson: Three years of eligibility left,…
- Golson returns to the practice field 20
- Spring Solutions: Wide receivers and tight ends 23
- Cody Riggs officially joins the Irish 39
- Academic casualties proof that foundation at Notre Dame remains 120
- Irish succeed with 2014 class, even against the odds 121
- Notre Dame announces Campus Crossroads Project 39