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Motta leads young Irish secondary

Matthew DeFranks | Thursday, November 15, 2012

Through four years, three roles and two coaches, one thing has stayed the same for Irish senior safety Zeke Motta – his presence.
The Vero Beach, Fla., native has played in all 48 games during his time at Notre Dame, a streak that dates back to his first game in his freshman season when Charlie Weis was Notre Dame’s coach.

As a freshman, Motta contributed mainly as a special teams player but also shifted between outside linebacker, which he played in high school, and safety. He earned his first start at safety against Michigan in 2010, when he recorded four tackles.
Motta said he has grown significantly in two years.

“I’ve taken leaps from where I was two years ago,” he said. “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.”

The 6-foot-2, 215-pound safety was a heavily recruited linebacker in the football-crazy state of Florida. He was named to the U.S. Army All-American Bowl and also was ranked inside the Rivals 100. He enrolled early and has been a mainstay on the Irish defense.

This season, Motta has taken on a new role as the elder statesman of a young and inexperienced secondary.
Entering this season, the defensive backfield appeared to be the weakest link of the Irish defense. After injuries to junior safety Austin Collinsworth, junior cornerback Lo Wood and graduate student safety Jamoris Slaugher, a depleted secondary was forced to start two converted receivers and a freshman cornerback.

“For multiple reasons, it was going to be a rebuilding year in the secondary anyway and then a few other poorly timed events happened that created an even more inexperienced secondary,” Irish defensive coordinator Bob Diaco said on Sept. 26.
Motta has stepped into the role of teacher and mentor for junior cornerback Bennett Jackson, sophomore safety Matthias Farley and freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell.

“I don’t think we can underestimate what he’s done back there for us,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He’s an integral part of our defense.”
The secondary has helped the Irish allow less than 200 passing yards per game and just six touchdowns through the air this year. The Irish defense is the top-ranked scoring defense in the nation, allowing 11.1 points per game.

Motta was named one of 15 semifinalists for the Thorpe Award, an honor given to the top defensive back in the country.

“Zeke Motta is hungry and interested in being the very best safety in America, he may very well be,” Diaco said. “He’s well on his way.”
Diaco said Motta has directed his attention to being the best football player he can be.

“I’m sure he’s a wonderful son and a heck of a friend and a strong student,” Diaco said. “But he’s basically focused most of his energy on becoming the very best player he can be. He comes to practice like game day. There’s no moment of football preparation where he’s not at 100 percent, at 100 miles per hour, all the energy he has.”

There is not a time that Motta is not trying to improve, Diaco said.

“Walkthrough, meetings, watching tape on his own, at practice, shorts practice, articulated work, scouted work. He’s just working on his game constantly and it’s paying off,” he said.

Through 10 games, the industrial design major has already surpassed his previous season-high in tackles with 52. He is tied for second in tackles on the team, behind only senior linebacker Manti Te’o.

Motta – who described his game as “physical, fast, tough, crazy and wild” – said his best football moment came during last year’s Champs Sports Bowl against Florida State, when he returned a fumble 29 yards for a touchdown. The score gave the Irish an early 7-0 lead but the Seminoles came back to win 18-14.

“That’s probably the biggest play I’ve had,” Motta said. “Unfortunately, we lost that game so it wasn’t that good.”

Motta enters his final home game with the third most career tackles of current Irish players, trailing Te’o and graduate student defensive lineman Kapron Lewis-Moore.
Motta, though, wants to be remembered as a well-rounded person.

“I’d like to be remembered as a dominant predator on the field and a kind-hearted gentleman off the field and somebody’s who’s a firm believer in God,” he said. “I try to do everything right all the time. I’m a firm believer in God. I treat each day as a new day to get better and tomorrow is never guaranteed.”
Motta could not pinpoint one item as his favorite thing about Notre Dame.

“The best thing I like about being at Notre Dame is probably a combination of a lot of things. Obviously, you have a beautiful campus with Mother Mary, Touchdown Jesus and the Basilica.

“When you take a step back and look at that, there’s really no other place in America that has that nostalgic feel to it. Being around my brothers this year, being a senior, having spent four years growing with these guys, it’s pretty special. The people I’ve met and the games I’ve been able to play in, it’s been a wonderful opportunity.”

Contact Matthew DeFranks at mdefrank@nd.edu