It’s a short trip from budding star to Senior Week. Zeke Motta is among a handful of Notre Dame seniors-to-be facing this reality in the fall of 2012.
Three years ago today, Motta, a high school safety, was the 10th ranked weak side linebacker in the nation by Scout.com. A 6’3 210-pound athlete (he’s since shrunk, a phenomenon realized by many high school and college seniors) with very good speed for a ‘backer and the instincts, aggression, and quickness to remain at safety, Motta had offers from southern stalwarts Auburn and Clemson as well as Pac-10 powers past (UCLA) and present (Stanford).
Combine all of the above and Motta was not unlike most incoming 4-star-plus prospects in the eyes of the Irish fan base: the next best thing.
Three seasons, two positions (he debuted at Dime linebacker for Charlie Weis and moved back to safety under the Brian Kelly regime) 38 games and 16 starts later, Motta is viewed by most as a reliable college starter, a solid player, a so-called “program guy,” but not yet an impact playmaker.
Such is life for most collegians after a high school career spent most often as the best player on every football field.
“It’s crazy to think about that now,” said Motta of his freshman debut as a hybrid LB in certain schemes. “Now the goal is to be a vocal leader and communicate. We’ve grown our brotherhood over the spring and from a senior leader’s perspective, I’ve definitely grown and developed more in terms of my confidence and fundamentals as well.”
More than a Moment?
In his most recent game for the Irish, Motta wasn’t the best player on the field, but he produced his best individual effort, scoring a touchdown against Florida State (one of two Notre Dame managed in an 18-14 defeat) and also breaking up two passes.
Asked post-game amid a somber atmosphere if it was his best game despite the outcome, Motta noted, “As far as making plays, being where I’m supposed to be, not having any mistakes; yeah, you could say that. I’d say this was the culmination of the year, improving from game-to-game.”
The improvement is necessary for 2012 with 2011 team captain and 1st Round NFL Draft pick Harrison Smith absent from the proceedings for the first time in the Kelly era. Smith took note of Motta’s breakthrough effort last December and believes it’ll be a regular occurrence next fall.
“I think it’s huge. I think his confidence will be through the roof and he’s one of those guys that thrives off that,” Smith said. “I think it’ll carry over big time. There’s no reason he can’t have an unbelievable senior year. Just kind of take over.”
Fans and media refer to such situations as “the light going on” or that “something clicks,” but Motta’s former position coach and the team’s current offensive coordinator, Chuck Martin, noted long ago that Motta was on the verge of becoming a playmaker on the back line. It seems game experience and trust in his abilities are crucial to that belief coming to fruition.
“He knows what he’s doing. He knows he has physical talents. He’s an unbelievable grinder,” said Martin of Motta in 2011. “It’s never been lack of desire, in some ways it’s too much. He puts too much pressure on himself.
“Now it seems like he’s more comfortable and confident. My hope, and I think it’ll go this way, is that he’ll start making some plays and he’ll start to show up a little bit, then he’ll start to show up a lot.”
That’s exactly what happened in Orlando, the aforementioned touchdown return leading to a standout overall effort. It’s exactly what the Irish defense needs from Motta and a handful of his cohorts next fall.
The end for Motta draws near. He’ll fight for every inch for the next 13 games...but about two handfuls of big plays courtesy of that effort must be part of that battle.
The Motta Files
Motta has played in 38 games/16 starts and produced 102 total tackles including two for loss, a half-sack, two interceptions, one forced fumble, and last December took back one fumble recovery for a 29-yard touchdown.
Best Games to Date:
- Florida State 2011 – Kicked off the contest by scoring Notre Dame’s second defensive touchdown of the season (and the only score in a competitive contest), then played well enough to receive an Irisheyes.com game ball for his efforts including a leaping break-up of a deep post pattern…
- Michigan State 2010 – Recorded a career-best 11 stops with an end zone interception…
- Stanford 2011 – Six stops and a forced fumble…
- Pittsburgh 2010 – Recorded a key 3rd down, 3rd Quarter tackle for loss vs. future 1st Round Draft pick Jonathan Baldwin…
Toughest moments in 2011:
- Looked like a first-year player in space during a 17-yard run by South Florida wide receiver Lamar Lindsey, who easily shook Motta in his tackle attempt (whiff in space)…
- Misplayed (along with Harrison Smith) a terrible lob pass on a post pattern that turned into a 45-yard gain in the 4th Quarter at Michigan one week later…
- Five of his six stops vs. Michigan State occurred on passes that resulted in a first down for the Spartans…
- Suffered a concussion vs. USC and while on the sidelines, with CB Robert Blanton shifting inside to safety, the Trojans hit the game-clinching stop-and-go touchdown vs. Motta’s replacement, Lo Wood.
Safeties coach Bob Elliott on Motta: “I think we’re on the way to that (consistent play-making level). He’s had to make a mental transition. He’s making more decisions now at that position than he had to last year. That’s a work in progress, but I don’t have any problems with where he’s going to be there. Physically he has all the tools that we want. He’s got a wonderful attitude; he wants to be great in everything that he does. As long as he continues that and soaks up the coaching, he’ll be as good as he wants to be.”
Tell-Tale Stat/Final Thoughts Only 18 of Motta's scrimmage tackles occurred vs. opposing running plays, with two stops for no gain but none for lost yardage...Of his 20 stops vs. the pass, 12 were after the opponent gained a first down (he added five special teams tackles for those of you scoring his 43 total tackles at home).
Enters the 2012 season on a high note but Motta has been anything but a consistent playmaker over the last two seasons as evidenced by the numbers above. He’s stayed healthy for 26 games during the Kelly era (16 starts splitting time with Slaughter) but a 13-game regular needs more than 17 solo stops over the course of a season as Motta managed last fall.
Look for Motta to play well in deep zone coverage next fall, but the difference will be turning a few catch-able balls into interceptions, with very few of the 50/50 balls resulting in receptions for the opposing offense. His true test will be in run support where departed standout Harrison Smith excelled when faced with quick athletes in space.
Motta knows Bob Diaco’s defense: where to be, how to get there, and where every one else fits along the way. His play at the conclusion of the 2011 season suggested his time had finally come (forced fumble vs. Stanford, TD and deep pass breakup vs. FSU, and 1/5 of his total tackles on the season occurred in the final two outings). He needs to carry that approach into September to help the Irish navigate the only month of their 2012 schedule in which they should be favored each week.
Note: Next in our Player Preview series: junior wide receiver T.J. Jones