TOM COYNE,Associated Press
SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame has a new voice in the secondary and coach Brian Kelly is glad everyone is finally getting to hear it.
Senior safety Zeke Motta has been busy, making sure his inexperienced teammates are in the right place. The Irish leaned heavily on Motta in wins against Purdue and Michigan State because fifth-year senior Jamoris Slaughter missed the second halves in both games because of injuries.
With Slaughter now out for the season with a torn Achilles tendon, the 11th-ranked Irish (3-0) are counting on Motta to play a key role Saturday night in slowing Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, who has gashed Notre Dame for 944 yards total offense the past two years. The Irish are trying to avoid a fourth-straight loss to the No. 18 Wolverines (2-1).
Motta is the only member of the Irish secondary with more than three career starts and is the only starter who arrived on campus as a defender. Matthias Farley, who replaces Slaughter, was a reserve wide receiver who didn’t play as a freshman last year. Junior cornerback Bennett Jackson started as a wide receiver, and freshman cornerback KeiVarae Russell was recruited as a running back.
The secondary is the question mark for a defense that has given up just 30 points, the fewest allowed by an Irish squad since the 1988 team gave up 27 points en route to the national championship.
Kelly calls Motta’s development the past year remarkable.
“He had a hard time getting himself lined up last year,” Kelly said. “He has been terrific back there. He’s been physical, he’s played the ball well and his leadership skills have continued to grow.”
Motta is second on the team with 19 tackles, including 11 against Michigan State along with an interception.
Kelly knew he needed the quiet Motta to become a leader this year so he tried to draw him out more this spring, asking him to speak before a group of about 1,000 alumni at the Joyce Center.
“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 said.
Motta said it was a bit intimidating at first, but accepted the challenge.
“I always like a good challenge,” he said.
He decided to talk about what Notre Dame meant to him. He wrote the speech, practiced giving it in front of a mirror, then in front of his father. He delivered the speech without the aid of notes, and believes he did well. Kelly saw Motta’s confidence growing in the spring.
Motta said he learned a lot from hanging around with Harrison Smith, a safety who was a Notre Dame captain last year and a first-round draft pick of the Minnesota Vikings. Motta said he’s tried to emulate Smith in his work ethic and leadership, saying he tries to lead without saying a lot.
“I don’t think a lot of words are necessary. I’m pretty short with my responses to things,” he said.
Defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore said Motta and Smith lead in the same way.
“I see a lot of the same qualities,” Lewis-Moore said. “Especially with JaMo going down, he’s the guy that’s going to have to take the reins now.”
When three Purdue receivers lined up bunched together, there was Motta, running up to the line, pushing freshman Irish safety Elijah Shumate to his left and back a yard to get him in position. He then ran over to the linebackers and shouted directions before dropping back deep as the ball was snapped.
The pass by Caleb TerBush on third-and-3 was batted down at the line, but the leadership was typical of Motta — and a far cry from being a player who wasn’t always sure where he should be. Motta said that came from learning to focus and spending a lot of time in the film room to make sure he was prepared.
“With those things comes confidence, and with confidence comes more verbal leadership and the ability to know that what you’re doing and making checks to is right,” he said.
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