Contrary to popular belief, no light goes on. There's not a seminal moment, at least not for most athletes, in which they transform from potential producer to playmaker.
Spend two minutes with returning senior starters Zeke Motta and Dan Fox and its apparent that confidence in one's self isn't the same as belief between the whistles.
"Sometimes before the play I'd feel nerves. Each game and each play I got more comfortable," said Fox of his 13-game stint as starting Will linebacker last fall, this after a season spent as a regular backup linebacker and full-time special teams player.
Asked to explain increased confidence heading into August camp 2012 vs. a full season of action in 2011, Fox noted, "I think its something off the snap, those first couple seconds, you have the feeling that you're right (in diagnosing and chasing the play). Before you didn't know. Sometimes you're still wrong but you go (hard) anyway."
That ability to react without hesitation, to explode forward without thinking, and to trust the defensive call and collection of teammates without worry is what separates good defenses and good players, from top tier units.
Its what separates a college football player from perpetual prospect, and why players like Fox and Motta begin to recognize, react, and attack at a different level later in their careers.
"Definitely a little bit of patience. I was a bit too aggressive at times," said Motta in a self-critique of his play last fall and aim for summer improvement. "Certainly my body position, working on open-field tackles, playing low. I really focused on that during the summer."
Motta felt his best effort coincided with the end of his 2011 season. It was a journey to that end, and no coincidence.
"The Florida State game was probably the culmination," he said. "It was my overall confidence in my preparation and mentality that was a little different. Looking back on it, I've improved that and being a leader as a senior, working on being more vocal, it gives me that much more confidence."
A similar transformation happened for senior Harrison Smith during this true senior season of 2010. Smith parlayed that into a sterling nine-game finish that fall, team captaincy for 2011, and a 5th-year effort that resulted in a first round draft selection in April.
"It was probably his knowledge of the game," said Motta of the biggest change he saw in the uniquely talented Smith. "Confidence in everything and his physical attributes, but really using his knowledge of the game on the field."
Empathy from a leader
Motta enters his third season as a starter under head coach Brian Kelly. He still remembers his first assimilation to the college game: a full-time special teams player and part time dime package linebacker under former head coach Charlie Weis.
"That’s crazy to think about," he admitted of his former role.
Motta's true freshman season resulted in playing time, but he remembers the feeling of disappointment, both in himself and ability to grasp the game at the college level. That recollection helps him, along with 5th-year senior Jamoris Slaughter, lead his 12-man safety unit today.
"You can understand being a freshman coming in from high school where they're used to being the number one guy, to then learn a defensive scheme, its very difficult," he said. "I can relate to them through how I felt when I was a freshman.
"Its good from my perspective to say, 'This is understandable (a mistake), its obviously frustrating to you right now because you're not getting it as quickly as you had expected, but if you're just patient with it and don't over-think it--which is what I did--it helps."
Football coaches are fond of noting that freshmen, "Don't even know that they don't even know."
Motta and Fox know. Now that knowledge has a chance to coincide with immediate action…and the football.