Tag: Zeke Motta

NFL Scouting Combine

Eight Irish seniors get invite to NFL Scouting Combine


While the excitement of Signing Day is still lingering, eight Notre Dame seniors received a very important invitation yesterday that will play a huge factor in their professional careers. The NFL’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis released their official invite list and it was filled with Irish players.

Here are the following players who will be in Indianapolis for the annual cattle call.

Braxston Cave, C
Tyler Eifert, TE
Kapron Lewis-Moore, DE
Zeke Motta, DB
Theo Riddick, RB
Jamoris Slaughter, DB
Manti Te’o, LB
Cierre Wood, RB

It’s a really interesting list and just about every player invited has something to specifically prove. For Cave, it’ll be improving on his Senior Bowl performance, where the former Irish center struggled athletically when matched up with some elite prospects. There’s no doubt Cave will impress when it comes time to bench press or meet with individual teams, but he’ll need to show he can handle the demands of the position at the next level.

For Eifert, a solid combine performance could solidify his spot in the first round. Of the 19 tight ends invited to Indianapolis, Eifert is likely battling Stanford’s Zach Ertz’s for the top spot at the position. A solid performance athletically — not to mention an elite 40 time — would go along way towards locking down an early draft spot. It’ll be interesting to see those two match up physically, as they are basically mirror images on paper, with both measuring 6-foot-6 in the program, and Ertz having one pound on Eifert at 252.

For Lewis-Moore, who is less than a month into his recovery after knee surgery, it’ll be an opportunity for teams’ medical staffs to poke and prod the versatile defensive lineman. With an invitation validation his solid senior season, Lewis-Moore’s character and size will likely be enough for a team to take a flier on him.

Zeke Motta will likely need to shake the final game of his career, where he made 16 tackles, but missed a half-dozen more that led to big Alabama plays. But Motta is a physical specimen, a guy that should put up impressive numbers in this type of setting, and needs to show coverage skills and speed to match the physicality he played with this season. One game doesn’t define a career, but it’s something he’ll need to address and build on.

The big thing to watch for Theo Riddick is his forty-time. If he can get into the 4.5 range, he’ll likely have some team take a shot at him, if only for his versatility. While Riddick was a challenge to tackle in space, I’ve always been skeptical of his top-end speed, if only because he’s been chased down by defensive backs from Navy and BYU in the past. Riddick may have been the bell cow of the Irish offense in 2012, but to stick in the NFL, he’ll need to take advantage of the versatility he displayed during his four seasons in South Bend.

Perhaps the most interesting invite of the group belongs to Jamoris Slaughter. While he’s still appealing the NCAA for a sixth year, Slaughter’s name on the list shows the regard for him as a player, even while he’s making the recovery from a season-ending Achilles tendon injury. Slaughter’s measureables will be interesting — he’s just not as physically big and fast as he played in the Irish secondary. It doesn’t appear that Slaughter is back and ready to run and jump for potential employers, but the fact that he’s on the list means he’s on teams radar.

In what will be NFL team’s first opportunity to talk with Manti Te’o, expect a media circus as we get one more opportunity to rehash the post-script to Te’o’s heralded football career. Any team looking at Te’o will likely want to spend some time discussing the catfishing hoax, but they’ll also want to dig deeper into a future rock for an NFL defense. There’s little worry that Te’o will be able to ease any teams’ fear off the field. But he’ll need to show the size, speed and athleticism he displayed throughout the season, and make teams forget about the egg he laid against Alabama.

An invite to the combine was an important first step for Cierre Wood. Now he’s got to put up numbers that make a team believe he’s capable of being a feature back in the league. Skipping out on his final year of eligibility, Wood lost the chance to showcase his skillset for one final season as the featured back in an Irish offense that’ll be more explosive next season. So he’ll need to show the top-end speed many think he possesses and better than expected size and strength.

Ten players, ten reasons: Zeke Motta

Notre Dame-Purdue

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.

Breaking down 4-0: The Secondary

Carlo Calabrese, KeiVarae Russell, Bennett Jackson

There was no bigger question mark on Notre Dame’s roster than the secondary. With first-round draft pick Harrison Smith gone and multi-year contributors Gary Gray and Robert Blanton exiting at cornerback, many believed that the Irish defense would only be as good as the replacements Bob Diaco and Kerry Cooks could find.


Preparing for the season, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter could be counted on as constants. Both played more than 70 percent of the defensive snaps in 2011. But behind those two, there was next to nothing. Bennett Jackson, counted on to start at boundary corner, played in only 11 percent of snaps. Lo Wood, who many thought was going to be lapped by Josh Atkinson before the season, played one fewer snap than Jackson. Austin Collinsworth, who many hoped would be a huge contributor before a shoulder injury ended his 2012 season in the spring, played just 84 snaps, a shade less than 10 percent. Behind them, only Danny McCarthy (47 snaps) and Atkinson (3) saw the football field.

That it looked like the Irish completely whiffed in recruiting only made things look more daunting. Tee Shepard, who many thought would jump into the starting lineup as a true freshman, didn’t last until spring ball. The Irish were in on several other top flight cornerback recruits, but none ended up in South Bend. Entering fall camp, there was a precarious level of depth for a position group that was welcoming a lot of unknowns.


Without much depth, here’s the secondary most expected the Irish to open with when Notre Dame played Navy.

Bennett Jackson, CB
Lo Wood, CB (season-ending Achilles tendon injury)
Zeke Motta, S
Jamoris Slaughter, S (season-ending Achilles tendon injury)
Austin Collinsworth, Nickel (season-ending shoulder injury)

The loss of Wood thrust freshman KeiVarae Russell into the starting lineup, a surprise choice considering the freshman originally intended to enter camp as a running back and Atkinson and Jalen Brown were already on the depth chart. Slaughter’s injury was perhaps even more back-breaking. Starting in his place is Matthias Farley, a redshirt freshman that spent last season as a wide receiver.

Danny McCarthy has been passed by young nickel back Elijah Shumate. Nicky Baratti has also forced his way into the rotation, making a huge interception against Michigan. Outside of Motta, the majority of times the Irish secondary is on the field, there are no returning starters, and most of the unit is playing significant minutes for the first time.


While some of the secondary’s success can certainly be credited to the stout Irish pass rush, the numbers that this unit has put up through four games is astounding. Across the board, the Irish secondary is playing better than last season.

Let’s run through a quick comparison of where the Irish passing defense sits now compared to the final 2011 stats.

Yards Per Game:
2011: 205 yards (38th)
2012: 178 yards (23rd)

Opponent QB Rating:
2011: 129.13 (58th)
2012: 96.81 (15th)

Completion Percentage:
2011: 59.7 (59th)
2012: 54.3 (25th)

Yards Per Attempt:
2011: 6.5 (24th)
2012: 5.6 (18th)

2011: 8 (93rd)
2012: 8 (2nd)


There’s no question that the success of the Irish secondary has been one of the great surprises of the season. Beyond all expectations, this group hasn’t looked out of place and has thrived in the opening four games of the season, while breaking in almost an entirely new unit. Credit should go to Diaco and Cooks, but also new safeties coach Bob Elliott for the work that’s been done in the back end with a ton of inexperienced guys.

Of course, four games doesn’t make a season. Only Purdue’s aerial game is ranked in the top 50 of teams that the Irish have faced. While many expect USC (42nd) and Oklahoma (32nd) to wage the stiffest tests, Boston College (16th), Pitt (23rd) and Miami (37th) all ranked ahead of the Trojans right now.

The above stats are only a few broken coverages away from blowing up. But so far, the improved play of a completely untested Irish secondary is a big reason why Notre Dame is undefeated.


And so it begins: BK talks 2012 season

Brian Kelly podium

Brian Kelly doesn’t officially kick off the 2012 football season until tomorrow, when his opening press conference takes place before the start of training camp. But that didn’t stop talk of the quarterbacking race from starting early.

Joining WSBT’s Sportsbeat with Darin Pritchett and Eric Hansen, Kelly answered questions from fans all across the country for 45 minutes, giving the first look at what’s to come in the upcoming season. Talking about everything from his successful recovery from back surgery to changes to the natural grass surface in Notre Dame Stadium, Kelly was in midseason form on the talk circuit, with the quarterbacking race taking center stage.

“We all know that we’re going to be starting a young man that hasn’t started a game at that position,” Kelly said about heading to Ireland without suspended quarterback Tommy Rees. “We won’t be lacking plays. We just need to execute them well.”

Another major offseason storyline was officially put to rest when Hansen asked Kelly about Tee Shepard. The one-time early enrollee cornerback, who was likely going to play a huge part in the Irish secondary this fall, left Notre Dame before he ever had a chance to practice with the Irish, doing so beneath the fog of rumors concerning a heart problem, suspicions of academic inadequacies, and a lot of Notre Dame fans scratching their head after two of Fresno’s most talented players in years, both long committed to Notre Dame, will apparently never play football for the Fighting Irish.

While answers are still hard to come by, Kelly was overly complimentary about Shepard, but also closed the door on any return to the Irish, a rumor that was largely fueled by Shepard himself via Twitter this summer.

“That door has now closed and we have invested those assets in other positions,” Kelly said. “That ship has sailed.”

One ship that hasn’t sailed is the playing surface inside Notre Dame Stadium. When asked about the future of natural grass, Kelly was cut and dry not only about his preference for field turf, but also spoke pointedly that the artificial surface was making its way inside the house that Rockne built.

“Field turf is coming,” Kelly said.

Kelly also spoke highly of the offseason work done by veterans like TJ Jones, Theo Riddick and Zeke Motta, and a freshman class that came into camp in better shape than anyone expected. He talked up local talent Daniel Smith, who had another summer surgery to get him healthy, a never-ending theme for the physically gifted wideout.

The battle along the offensive line seems to be focused on right guard. With Christian Lombard seemingly owning the right tackle slot, it’ll be fifth-year grad Mike Golic battling Nick Martin for a starting role and Tate Nichols likely relegated to backing up Lombard. The unit will look to get more consistency and better with its technique under new offensive line coach Harry Hiestand.

“We wanted somebody who could get to the point where technique was number one,” Kelly said of Hiestand. “Ed Warinner did a very good job for us, but I was look for something a little bit different this time around. We wanted to focus on the fundamentals.”

Speaking of the fundamentals, nowhere will that come into play more than at quarterback. After spending the spring focusing on taking control of the offense and holding onto the football.

“Take great care of the football,” Kelly said, pointing to the key criteria in the quarterbacking battle. “The quarterback that’s going to play against Navy is the one we trust most to take care of the football.”

Kelly perhaps revealed his hand a bit when asked the million dollar question that’ll likely shape preseason camp. When asked if he had an idea of who that quarterback would be, Kelly didn’t hesitate.

“I do. I’ve got an idea in my mind,” Kelly said. “But we now have to take that from  meeting room talk and go apply that. One’s not good enough. We’ve got to get a couple guys ready for Navy and for the season. We’ve got a couple ideas, but it’ll take some time.”


Russell and Neal will get looks at cornerback


There’s no question that Notre Dame lacks quality depth at cornerback heading into the season. Needing to replace both Robert Blanton and Gary Gray, the Irish will look to first year starter Bennett Jackson on the short-side of the field as Lo Wood and Josh Atkinson will take their competition for the field cornerback position into training camp.

With converted running back Cam McDaniel added to the mix this spring, and Jalen Brown looking the part but still learning, the Irish essentially have five cornerbacks with zero experience that’ll need to hold passing games in check if Notre Dame has BCS aspirations. That sound you hear? It could be quarterbacks Landry Jones and Matt Barkley, two Heisman Trophy candidates, getting ready for a signature game opportunity.

With Tee Shepard never making it into a Notre Dame uniform, Ronald Darby defecting after a long standing commitment to the Irish and Yuri Wright and Anthony Standifer kept out for non-football considerations, Kerry Cooks’ cornerbacks will need to hold down the fort until reinforcements come in 2013.

Unless of course those reinforcements are already on campus.

Head coach Brian Kelly revealed that talented two-way freshmen Davonte Neal and Keivarae Russell will both get a look on the defensive side of the ball, potentially adding some dynamic depth (albeit youthful) to the rotation, while the running back and slot positions are filled with proven talent.

“I think we’ve got to have all of the options open when we go into camp,” Kelly told the South Bend Tribune. “With those two kids in particular we’ve had conversations with them to be flexible.

“We’re going to do what’s best for our team. I think everybody knows where we need to continue to build some depth in certain areas. We’re going to keep open-minded and give them an opportunity to compete.”

It’s a common sense move, especially considering the depth chart Neal and Russell find themselves walking into on the offensive side of the ball. Neal was recruited by some colleges as a two-way player and many see the 5-foot-10, 175-pounder to be a potential lockdown cornerback.

Russell, who showed tremendous versatility during his high school career, is also said to be coming into South Bend with an open mind.

“He didn’t go in there thinking he wanted to be one spot,” Mariner High head coach Dave Odrizack told Scout.com. “He didn’t go in thinking, ‘I want to be a corner,’ or ‘I want to be a running back.’ He just went in to be a football player.”

At 6-foot, 180-pounds, Russell has the size coveted by Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco. He’s also showed good speed, running in the state finals of the 100m dash and having a vertical leap of 37-inches. He saw time all over the field and on both sides of the ball as a running back, receiver, cornerback and safety, making any transition a little bit easier.

Of course, after having no depth at safety the past two seasons, the Irish will now have a whopping 12 scholarship safeties this season. Even with Austin Collinsworth lost for the season, you’ve got to think the coaching staff will be looking for candidates to play on the edge of the defense as well. That might mean talented rising sophomore Eilar Hardy could get a look. It could also mean that Jamoris Slaughter still dabbles at cornerback, entrusting the alignment duties to fellow senior Zeke Motta.

Even with two returning starters, the cornerbacks disappointed in 2011, with Gray regressing in his final season at Notre Dame. There’s no room for regression with this group, as each candidate will go in essentially a blank slate.

We’ll find out in a few months if that’s a good thing.