Blue and Gold Illustrated

Oct. 8, 2012 Issue

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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Under Construction Notre Dame pushed senior safety Zeke Motta in order to manufacture a leader By Dan Murphy Not every leader is born a natural. Some are forged from circumstance. Some are engineered by necessity. Irish senior Zeke Motta, the new leader of the Notre Dame secondary, is a little bit of both. The 2012 season wasn’t halfway through September before Motta became the only defensive back with significant playing experience left standing. A young and thin secondary got younger and thinner when fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter ruptured his Achilles tendon against Michigan State. Slaughter was Notre Dame’s coach on the field on defense. Now, that role falls squarely on the shoulders of Motta, the only remaining starter who wasn’t borrowed from the offense. It’s a job for which the Irish coaching staff has been grooming him for the better part of a year. “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,” head coach Brian Kelly said. Motta needed the push. He’s not one to waste words or draw attention to himself. He’s efficient in the way he trains and talks. He approaches football like a factory worker, ready to do what is asked of him each day. It’s appropriate, then, that his evolution can be peeled away piece-by-piece to see the assembly line of neat and intentional steps it took to build a leader. Finding A Voice The final and most difficult part of Motta’s development is still a work in progress. The Vero Beach, Fla., native arrived on campus four summers ago as an ultra-talented freshman a couple flights below laconic. Communication is essential for a defensive back, especially one who has to situate a complete cast of first-timers before each snap. Motta was raised by his father, Bill, a high school football coach who has always subscribed to the soft-spoken, big-stick philosophy. His son followed suit. “When he first got here he was on mute,” senior Theo Riddick said. “He didn’t really say much, shy guy. Now he’ll tell you anything in a heartbeat.” Even before injury sidelined Slaughter, Motta was visibly more comfortable making calls on the field and getting his teammates into position. On one play when words weren’t getting the job done against Purdue, he physically picked up freshman nickel back Elijah Shumate and put him in place. Getting Motta to speak up on and off the field was a deliberate process for the Irish coaching staff. Kelly selected the rising senior as the only team member who would speak in front of nearly 1,000 program alumni along with NFL Pro-Bowler Justin Tuck prior to this year’s spring game. The experience launched Motta far outside his comfort zone and added a layer to his budding confidence. His lips are looser now, but he’s still not one to mince words. Motta started to give a detailed description of his public speaking debut last week in a post-practice interview before cutting himself off and getting to the point. “You don’t need to say any of that,” he said. “[Kelly] just asked me to do it, right? He said you’re doing this. OK, yeah, I’m doing this. I prepared a speech, talked it over with my dad and went up there and talked about how much Notre Dame means to me.” Message delivered. End of story. Between The Lines Of course, Motta’s ability to direct traffic and get his teammates in the right place is contingent on his knowing where they should go. A year ago, he was the one in need of directions. Before he could find his voice, Motta had to figure out what to say. That process started with learning to study film. For most of his football life, Motta got by with raw athleticism and size. When he started competing against players like USC’s Robert Woods for wins and Slaughter and recent graduate Harrison Smith for playing time, talent alone wasn’t going to cut it. The first clear signs of Motta’s new approach came in Notre Dame’s 18-14 loss to Florida State in the Champs Sports Bowl last December. His fumble recovery touchdown in the first quarter was mostly a case of being in the right place at the right time. More impressive was the fact that he continued to consistently be in the right place at the right time throughout the three quarters that followed. That performance added another layer to his confidence and provided a springboard to a fruitful offseason. “It’s probably one of the most remarkable developments of a player from year two to year three,” Kelly said. “He had a hard time getting himself lined up last year. He has been terrific back there [this year].” Role Models The foundation of Motta’s confidence as a leader comes from the players he watched travel a similar path in front of him. The comparisons between Motta and Smith, now a rookie starter for the Minnesota Vikings, are immediately apparent. Both are 6-2 and 215 pounds of tight-knit muscle. Both have a knack for delivering big blows at full speed near the line of scrimmage. And both looked lost early in their careers. “I definitely took after [Smith] and tried to follow in his footsteps — how he did things, his work ethic and really just using his leadership as an example,” Motta said. They spent long hours watching film with Slaughter last season, and all three players benefitted from the experience. Motta learned how to dissect the field and read an offense. More importantly, he learned how to take control in a shaky situation, how to take a young player under his wing and how to lead. ✦

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