NCF Nation: Zeke Motta

Notre Dame season preview

August, 15, 2013
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Today we're looking at Notre Dame, which looks to build off its best season in more than two decades.

Notre Dame Fighting Irish

Coach: Brian Kelly (199-68-2 overall, 28-11 at Notre Dame)

2012 record: 12-1

Key losses: RB Theo Riddick, RB Cierre Wood, TE Tyler Eifert, C Braxston Cave, DE Kapron Lewis-Moore, LB Manti Te'o, S Zeke Motta

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly
AP Photo/John BazemoreBrian Kelly's Irish should once again be in the hunt for a BCS bowl game.
Key returnees: QB Tommy Rees, WR TJ Jones, WR DaVaris Daniels, LT Zack Martin, LG Chris Watt, DE Stephon Tuitt, NG Louis Nix III, LB Dan Fox, LB Prince Shembo, CB Bennett Jackson

Newcomer to watch: RB Greg Bryant. The Delray Beach, Fla., native was ESPN's No. 2 running back prospect for the Class of 2013 and walks into a crowded but opportune situation. Bryant, an Oklahoma de-commit, is one of six backs vying for extensive playing time after the Irish said goodbye to their top-two rushers from a year ago. Coach Brian Kelly has already gone on record as saying that his young running backs are guys who will help the Irish win some games this fall, and Bryant may turn out to be the best of the bunch.

Biggest games in 2013: Sept. 7 at Michigan, Sept. 21 vs. Michigan State, Sept. 28 vs. Oklahoma, Oct. 5 vs. Arizona State (in Arlington, Texas), Oct. 19 vs. USC, Nov. 30 at Stanford

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The most pressing question may be how Notre Dame adjusts on the fly after learning after the spring that it would be without quarterback Everett Golson for at least the fall (academic misconduct). Luckily for the Irish, senior Tommy Rees and his 18 starts are back, though he will need some new playmakers to emerge around him after the Irish lost their top two running backs and first-round pick Tyler Eifert at tight end. Six men are vying for carries in the backfield, while TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels anchor the receiving corps.

Forecast: Kelly made it clear that 2012 was in the past by taking his team to Camp Shiloh in Marion, Ind., for the first week of fall camp. No social media or television and, more specifically, no more talk about the Alabama game, Manti Te'o or the other headlines that followed the program during a wild offseason. In helping to get that message across, Kelly has the perfect quarterback in Rees, who has overcome negative headlines of his own and, last year, overcame losing his starting job. He went on to save the Irish in three of their first six games last season and proved to be as valuable as anyone on the roster. Never will that be more evident than this season, as he steps up again in Golson's absence. A stronger Rees took control of the offense during the offseason, and better decision-making should pay dividends for the Irish this fall.

They finished second nationally in scoring defense last season and return eight starters from that unit, including potential 2014 first-round draft picks Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt. They are also much deeper, with a plethora of linebackers and defensive backs ready to spare the starters at a moment's notice, a far cry from last season, when the team broke in three new starters in the secondary -- with all three having been on the offensive side of the ball earlier in their careers.

Kelly returns all of his assistants after a renaissance 2012 campaign that saw the team notch a perfect regular season before meeting Alabama in the BCS National Championship. He brought in ESPN's No. 4 recruiting class for 2013. And he brings back more than enough talent to prove that last season was not a one-year wonder, and that the Irish are, in fact, here to stay. Another BCS bowl game -- despite the late loss of its starting quarterback -- should be well within reach for Notre Dame in 2013.
The NFL does not wait for everyone, and so what was an otherwise 10 a.m. ET call out of Baltimore turned into an early-morning wake-up for the latest former Notre Dame player to take his talents to the next level.

Toma will join fellow Irish player Kapron Lewis-Moore with the Ravens. The often-overlooked 5-foot-9, 185-pound receiver is now the 13th former Irish player who will get a shot at the NFL in one form or another.

The official Notre Dame football page has a nice graphic of most of the players here.

To recap:
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Once the crowning of Alabama had become official, Robby Toma walked off the field first with his helmet still on. Theo Riddick struggled to hold back tears. Louis Nix insisted his team was not dominated in the 28-point loss.

Then there was Elijah Shumate, virtually clueless about this whole exercise.

Notre Dame's 42-14 loss in the Discover BCS National Championship ruined its perfect season, and it ruined Shumate's perfect streak.

[+] EnlargeNotre Dame's Elijah Shumate
Robert Mayer/USA TODAY SportsElijah Shumate had a personal 55-game winning streak snapped in the blowout loss to Alabama.
A football career that saw three perfect prep seasons and a perfect regular season in his first year of college ball had become re-acquainted with the sting of defeat, Shumate's first after a 55-game winning streak.

"That was a tough loss," Shumate said of the title game. "They came out and they played hard and they really beat us. They handed us a big loss. Before the game I didn't think they were any way better than us. They played better than us, they were the better team that night and I definitely think we have a great team and that we were young. And we're still kind of young, but we're getting better and we're learning, so I think we're just going to keep working. Hopefully we'll see them again."

Not since the second game of his freshman season at Paterson (N.J.) Catholic had Shumate experienced a loss, as the next eight games that season and the three ensuing years at powerhouse Don Bosco Prep all culminated with state titles.

Now the player who made his mark as a nickelback in Year 1 with the Irish is transitioning to a full-time safety, the spot he was initially recruited to play. He has emerged from the crowded field to this spring to take first-team reps much of the way.

"He is what we thought he was in terms of a tackler," coach Brian Kelly said. "He’s a very good tackler, a sure tackler, he’s physical. He can play the safety position. I think [safeties] coach [Bob] Elliott's done a nice job with the learning curve. That’s certainly what this is all going to be about, and picking up the nuances. Matthias [Farley] has done a very good job in helping him. But I think the entire defense is helping as well. So he’s our guy back there, and he’s got to continue to learn. The spring has been very good for him. He’s going to have to continue to take steps forward in the summer."

The 6-foot, 213-pound rising sophomore has attacked the challenge after a year spent mostly getting his feet wet in the secondary, where coverage responsibilities were fairly straightforward and he had the luxury of working with three-year starter Zeke Motta.

This year brings other challenges, such as making calls and pre-snap adjustments, responsibilities he says he is slowly but surely growing more comfortable with.

Anything, it would seem, in order to return to his version of normalcy, which looks nothing like the one the Crimson Tide painted Jan. 7.

"It was really hard, I never want to have to go through that again," Shumate said. "But it's part of life. And it's part of growing up: You're going to win some, you're going to lose some. Go hard and learn from it."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Austin Collinsworth was careful not to say that he was completely, fully healed from shoulder and back surgeries in the past year, but returning to the field this spring has served as a final hurdle to cross after missing last season.

"I would say probably 98 percent, something like that," the rising fourth-year junior said. "But I'll be 100 percent by the end of the spring."

The safety underwent surgery following last year's spring season to repair a torn labrum in his left shoulder, an injury that figured to sideline him for the 2012 campaign. That year-long wait became official when back pain that flared up in October eventually resulted in another operation, leaving him to watch the entirety of Notre Dame's run to the Discover BCS National Championship from the sideline.

"It's hard," said Collinsworth, the son of former NFL player and current analyst Cris Collinsworth. "It was a really exciting season. It was pretty terrible not being a part of it, but I liked watching my friends do well out on the field and it was a really fun season just to be a part of."

Collinsworth said that he began feeling great physically three weeks ago, and he impressed the staff in the weeks leading up to the start of spring practices.

"We had seven workouts where the coaches were involved in the conditioning elements," coach Brian Kelly said at the start of spring. "Our defensive staff feels really good. I had a chance to observe him because I wanted to see the guys that are coming back. I was really pleased with what I saw."

Collinsworth has been seen working with the second-team defense this spring upon his return, alongside Eilar Hardy. (Rising sophomore Nick Baratti has been sidelined following his own shoulder surgery.) After recording 25 tackles and forcing one fumble while playing in all 26 games throughout his first two seasons with the Irish, Collinsworth is hoping to crack the rotation of a secondary that finally finds itself with a good numbers problem, this after the unit suffered three season-ending injuries by Week 3 of last season.

The departure of Davonte' Neal has led to more opportunities for Collinsworth to field punts, too, something the Fort Thomas, Ky., native did for three years in high school.

"We lost some really good guys," Collinsworth said of the secondary. "Jamoris [Slaughter] last year only got to play a couple games when he was back at safety. And Zeke [Motta] -- that kid's an animal back there. But we've got a lot of good players that are returning, and I don't think our defensive backfield is going to take a step back at all."

Best case/worst case: Notre Dame

December, 13, 2012
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The stakes are fairly evident for the Discover BCS National Championship on Jan. 7.

Best case: Notre Dame beats Alabama, winning its first national title in 24 years, ending the SEC's reign of six straight crystal football trophies and eventually setting up the building of an on-campus statue of Brian Kelly, who follows in his Irish predecessors' footsteps by winning it all in his third year. Everett Golson emerges on the national radar as one of many upcoming quarterbacks to watch next season, Manti Te'o and Tyler Eifert close their careers with a bang and Louis Nix elects to return to South Bend for another season. Pretty sweet, huh?

Worst case: Golson underperforms under the bright lights, leading to another offseason of quarterback uncertainty, as Gunner Kiel and company await their chance. Alabama wins its third national title in four years going away, Nick Saban wins his fourth overall and the SEC's stretch of dominance continues for at least one more year, leaving many to wonder just how, or when, Notre Dame and the rest of the college football world can ever put an end to the conference's reign. Oh, and Nix elects to go pro afterward, too, leaving Notre Dame's defense without three of its best players after Te'o and Zeke Motta graduate.

Irish looking to turn tables on USC

November, 21, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Zeke Motta was caught a bit off guard, interrupting a reporter who referenced USC's recent record against Notre Dame amid a question about the rivalry.

"You said they've won nine out of the past 10?" Motta asked.

[+] EnlargeBrian Kelly and Tommy Rees
Matt Cashore/US PRESSWIRECoach Brian Kelly says Notre Dame needs to win a few games against USC for the series to be considered a rivalry again.
"They did, yeah. They won eight straight -- you won one, they won last year," the reporter said.

"Oh yeah. OK, all right. I was wondering, because we beat them two years ago."

"Yeah, that's the one win."

Yes, Notre Dame is the No. 1 team in the country, and USC and 60 minutes stand between the Irish and the BCS title game. But these are still the Trojans, a four-loss campaign or not, and they have had Notre Dame's number at nearly every recent turn, including last year's two-touchdown midseason win that put an early kibosh on any and all remaining BCS bowl hopes.

Rivalry? There's not much of one right now, coach Brian Kelly said, although that can all change with what's at stake Saturday.

"We haven't won enough games," Kelly said. "They've had the upper hand on this. We need to make this a rivalry. And that is, we need to win some more football games against a great opponent in USC. Our guys know that. I don't have to tell them that. They've been around. They were here last year when we got beat."

Kelly said everyone, himself included, learned from last year's loss, which doubled as the Irish's first home night game in 21 years. A modest four-game winning streak preceded the contest against the then-unranked Trojans. Add all of that to a victory in Hollywood a year earlier, and much of the team was drowned in the hype surrounding the prime-time affair.

The Irish dug themselves into a 17-0 hole early and never escaped.

"I know my focus was a little bit off -- I can admit to that," junior noseguard Louis Nix said. "I didn't play my best game. I don't think others did."

Like last year, it would appear the tables are again on the verge of turning.

Fourth- and fifth-year Irish players committed around the time USC was dominating the then-Pac-10, piling up one Rose Bowl win after another while Notre Dame slogged through 3-9 and 7-6 campaigns, netting just three points over the course of two blowout losses to the Trojans.

Now USC is 7-4 and unranked, and its head coach is facing serious questions. The tumble out of the No. 1 spot in which it entered the season coincides with Notre Dame's rise to the top.

"It's spectacular to see the evolution and change that I've had over the past four years, and I can only imagine with the other guys on the team," said Motta, a senior. "Just to see and witness how this program has progressed and to be where we are at right now as a team, not only our record but who we are as a team, how we come to work every day, and to really play for each other and go out there on that football field and have fun."

A No. 1 ranking, Motta insists, does not mean a new order of business for a program already used to dealing with everyone's best shot.

"I think that no matter what, Notre Dame has always been a target, and we kind of have that understanding of, OK, no matter what position you're in, you're always going to be targeted and people are going to be coming after you because you are Notre Dame," he said. "At this point I don't know how much more you can give because of what's on the line. We're not changing; we can worry about whatever they're doing later. At this point we just love playing football."

They will love it even more if they can make it four more quarters of the same habits that have lifted them to an 11-0 mark so far.

One more win -- against a down-and-out archrival, no less -- and a shot at the sport's biggest prize would be theirs.

"It'd mean everything," fifth-year senior John Goodman said of a title-game berth. "That's something that we all dreamed about since we were kids, especially on the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team. That's going to be really special. But again, got to stay focused, got to get this win before that happens."
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- No, there is not a cardboard cutout of Max Wittek standing in the Notre Dame locker room. The USC quarterback's comments from a Tuesday radio appearance are not posted around the school's football complex.

The news to Irish players Wednesday? Of course a starting quarterback thinks his team's going to win, so why is it a big deal?

"He's a big guy, he has a strong arm -- obviously he guaranteed a win or whatever, but at the same time what do you expect?" Notre Dame's fifth-year end Kapron Lewis-Moore said. "You don't expect him to say we're going to lose. I think people are really making a bigger deal than what it is. He's a confident quarterback, and you want to play for a confident quarterback. So by him coming out saying, 'We're going to win,' that's what you want out of your quarterback.

"Obviously we're not over-thinking it, it's not hanging up in the locker room, it's not bulletin-board material. You know about it, just kind of shrug it off, then go to work."

Wittek is making his first career start after Matt Barkley went down Saturday with a shoulder injury. The redshirt freshman has completed 8 of 9 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown as a reserve this season.

On Tuesday, he went on 710 ESPN Radio in Los Angeles and expressed confidence in his chances against the No. 1 Irish.

"If he wants to air it out, let's air it out," Wittek said of Trojans coach Lane Kiffin. "If he wants to pound it on the ground, let's do that. I'm gonna go out there, I'm gonna play within myself, within the system, and we're gonna win this ballgame."

The comments drew a strong response, just not among Notre Dame players.

"They probably just mis-said a few words, who knows?" Irish nose guard Louis Nix said of the comments. "I don't try to take comments, what people say, because sometimes people speak out of terms and people try to boost it up. If he said it, he said it. If he didn't mean to, he didn't meant to. I don't really care. I'm just going out to the Coliseum trying to play some good football."

Last year USC linebacker Chris Galippo said that Notre Dame quit when it didn't use any of its three timeouts late in a 31-17 Trojans win at Notre Dame Stadium. Barkley echoed those comments later on a radio show.

"I think that from their position, you'd hope that a quarterback coming in and being a rookie and all, you'd have confidence going into a game like this," Irish safety Zeke Motta said. "But with that inexperience, it could go either way. But I think that you think about an inexperienced quarterback out there, try to use that to your advantage out on the field. But at the same time he has nothing to lose, so he can chunk it up or whatever."
Devin Street is coming off a career best 140-yard receiving day in Pitt's 47-17 rout Saturday against Temple. The redshirt junior has team bests this season of 50 catches, 695 yards and four touchdowns.

Street brings the Panthers into Notre Dame Stadium on Saturday with the chance to knock off the nation's No. 3 team. Here, he talks about that opportunity, along with what has been working so well lately for Pitt's offense.

Note: Street spoke with ESPN.com on Wednesday. On Thursday, he and two other teammates were charged with simple assault and conspiracy in connection with an incident last month. All three will play Saturday at Notre Dame.

Saturday was a career day for you numbers-wise. What was clicking for you and how do you try to build off that this weekend?

Devin Street: Just comfortable with the offense. Little concepts. Definitely our offensive line protecting Tino [Sunseri] and giving him time. We had a great scheme going into Temple and attacked some of the holes in their defense, and I think we were pretty successful in the passing game.

That's three out of four weeks now that you've had at least 100 receiving yards. Is this as good as you've felt in your career?

[+] EnlargeDevin Street
AP Photo/Keith SrakocicAn inexperienced Pitt offense will be counting on receiver Devin Street for guidance in 2013.
DS: Yeah, I think so. I'm the most confident at this point. There's a lot of things thrown at me, different concepts, moving in the slot and everything like that. But the coaches are calling upon me and I just know in my mind I have to respond. But yeah, I'd say I definitely feel really comfortable right now.

When Tino Sunseri is playing the way he is, how much easier is it for you and everyone else?

DS: I think it is easier for everyone else. I think Tino's more confident in me, but he's also confident in the offense, which allows us to click. And he has targets to throw to, especially with Mike Shanahan, too, throwing to Ray [Graham] out of the backfield. I just think we're all really comfortable with the new system, and I think it's coming together.

Is that as good as the offense has performed? What's the next step this week?

DS: I think we definitely did some things well against Temple, but going back and watching the film I feel like we can improve on some things. I think we definitely are doing that this week, too, moving guys around to help, putting Mike at different spots and doing all different types of things. I think we can definitely do some different things, but at the same time I think we did a lot of things well against Temple.

It took longer than I imagine most fans and people outside the program probably wanted or imagined it would, but you guys are starting to click under a new coach right now. What has Paul Chryst done that has helped you guys ease into the flow and made the transition smooth?

DS: Just with any coach I think it's different coming in with a new concept. And going out there and playing it and seeing it during the game is going be hard to adjust. Things are coming along, coach Chryst has put an emphasis on the little things and concepts -- we just keep going over and going over. Concepts that we need to refine, to think, our go-tos. We don't have a bunch of plays but we have a lot of plays that we're getting good at, so I think he's just definitely harping on that.

Notre Dame's defense is one of the best country. What do you see in the secondary that makes them so effective?

DS: I think they're great athletic-wise. I think they have a great safety in Zeke Motta. He's a pretty good captain back there, doesn't let anything get behind him, can definitely come up and slow the run. I feel like their corners are definitely aggressive and athletic. I know they have a young corner [KeiVarae Russell], and he plays tremendously, like a veteran out there. I think they definitely do some things well. They're just a great group to complement their front three, who's tremendous.

What's the balance mentally for you guys as you go into a historic venue with the chance to ruin a team's national title hopes? How do you embrace that opportunity while sticking with the game plan?

DS: I think we had a taste of it going into Virginia Tech, so we kind of know what it's like. That was another big opportunity, ranked opponent. So I feel like we know what it's like. We're just going to go out here and prepare -- not get too high, not get too low, like we always do. Just go out against Notre Dame and give them all we got. We know we have to play assignment football and can't get outside our element and start doing anything we want. We know we have to stick to the gameplan and give it 110 percent against those guys.

ND defense preps for toughest task yet

October, 26, 2012
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Landry JonesAP Photo/Aaron M. SprecherNotre Dame has yet to face anybody like Landry Jones this season.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- The closest thing Notre Dame has seen to someone like Landry Jones this season is debatable. The closest thing Jones has seen to Notre Dame?

Allow the fifth-year Oklahoma quarterback to explain the early-season loss to Kansas State.

"It still kind of hurts," Jones said. "You don't ever want a game to slip away from you and you don't ever want to lose that early in the season. Yes, Kansas State is a good team, for sure -- no doubt about that. But it still hurts.

"You still think about it, and you can go, 'What if?' all you want, but that game is behind us now. Yes, it still does hurt, but you have to move on from it, and we are playing ball now."

Notre Dame is hoping to pressure Jones into looking more like the man who turned it over twice in a Sept. 22 home loss to the Wildcats than the one who has responded by throwing for a total of 880 yards in three straight wins.

Jones was hurried twice and sacked twice in his team's lone defeat, and he had a fumble returned for a score. He has not been officially hurried since, absorbing just two sacks and throwing for seven touchdowns with just one pick.

"He's gotten into a good rhythm," Irish coach Brian Kelly said. "He hasn't been disrupted very much. And I think, like most good quarterbacks, if you can get into a good rhythm and you're not disrupted, you're going to be pretty effective. You can see that's been the case."

The Irish secondary has lost two first-teamers for the season and is starting just one player who's been on defense his whole career, but the unit has put together the nation's No. 14 passing defense through its 7-0 start. However, six of Notre Dame's opponents rank outside the top 60 in passing, with Miami the lone outlier at No. 23. (Oklahoma is 26th).

The Hurricanes dropped a pair of would-be touchdown passes on their opening drive versus the Irish and never really threatened after, scoring just three points.

"It's exciting for us, and we know that they're a team that likes to throw the ball, especially try and get the ball over the defensive backs' heads," senior safety Zeke Motta said of Oklahoma. "But I think it's going to be a good challenge for us, and we've seen something similar to that in Miami, so at least we have a little taste and we know kind of what to expect. So it's all in our preparation this week and we're really excited about it."

Jones is not a threat to run, but he is quick to get rid of the ball.

"Pocket presence, his ability to put the ball where he needs to, his accuracy," Motta said, rattling off what he noticed from film. "He's probably the best quarterback we're going to face to date."

Which puts the onus on the nation's No. 2 scoring defense to slow down a machine that averaged 52 points over its past three games.

"I am a lot different now," Jones said of his past three games. "I have been playing a lot better. Obviously, after games like Texas Tech, Texas and last week against Kansas, you are going to have a lot higher confidence, and I think everyone on this team is going to have higher confidence because of the way we have been playing."

Jackson steadies growing secondary

October, 10, 2012
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SOUTH BEND, Ind. --The emotion that Bennett Jackson plays with while covering receivers for Notre Dame can be traced to roughly a decade ago, his years as a youth-league player setting the foundation for a cornerback who, in he and his teammates' words, is hyper-competitive, talks endless trash and hates nothing more than losing.

Before every practice with the Hazlet (N.J.) Hawks, coach Greg Fitzpatrick would bring his 10- and 11-year-old players into a circle before asking, in no uncertain terms: How do you feel?

"WE-FEEL-GOOD!" they would shout back in unison.

"We used to have chants and all that nonsense -- he just was a presence," Jackson said last week, recalling his days under Fitzpatrick. "Everyone always had respect for him, and when you see him fired up, everyone else gets fired up."

Jackson has emerged as a steadying presence for what initially looked like a patchwork Irish secondary. The junior arrived at Notre Dame as a receiver and plays opposite a freshman who was recruited as a running back. Both are protected by a safety who made the transition from receiver this past year.

[+] EnlargeBennett Jackson
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesJunior Bennett Jackson has three of Notre Dame's eight interceptions this season.
But after surviving a pair of dropped touchdown passes on their first drive Saturday against Miami, the Irish defense now finds itself ranked No. 10 nationally in pass efficiency, and 22nd in passing yards allowed per game.

"You couldn't script it any better," coach Brian Kelly said after Notre Dame slowed Miami's aerial attack. "You have some young players out there."

Jackson has three of the team's eight interceptions, along with a fumble recovery.

The first-year starter has not lacked for confidence, but he is not afraid to pick others' brains despite being, by default, one of the elder statesmen of his unit.

"He's approached each day with a workman-like attitude and to really come out and focus on the little details of the game and to be more vocal when he needs to be," said senior safety Zeke Motta, the one starting defensive back who came to Notre Dame as a defensive back. "It's not like he's over-boisterous or anything like that."

Jackson, who also runs track for the Irish, drew much of that emotion from Fitzpatrick, playing running back and free safety for his old coach while also kicking and punting.

"I always told the kids that football is a game of emotions, that you have to keep it under control, because I as a coach wore my emotions on my sleeve, that's the way it was," Fitzpatrick said. "Pumped up for a good way, maybe a little aggravated on a missed tackle or something else. It just kind of trickled down to the kids. I always coached them up to be extremely confident, to have them ready and never to be cocky -- do our talking on the field. That's the way it was."

Now at a position where short-term memory is a prerequisite, Jackson has worked on harnessing his energy.

"It's not something easy to do, to just let go," Jackson said. "I just let up a touchdown -- obviously that's going to be at the back of your head. But you've kind of just got to let it go and know you can't do anything about it, so that's the way I look at it."

Jackson closed out a Week 2 win over Purdue by picking off the game's final heave near the end zone. With a victory secured, the over-anxious corner ran up the field, never hitting the ground and only returning to the home sideline after a dash that spanned roughly half the gridiron.

Kelly grabbed Jackson with two hands and sat him down for a brief chat before the postgame handshake, saying to reporters afterward: "What would you tell him? What, are you nuts? Get down, the game's over."

"Well, that's the offensive side of Bennett going," Fitzpatrick cracked.

Notre Dame: Looking back and forward

October, 1, 2012
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The first month of the season is in the books. Let's revisit some of it, and look at what October could bring us.

Best

1. Notre Dame is 4-0. This is a big deal. The Irish have not had a 4-0 start since 2002. They have beaten three of the Big Ten's better teams (sly word choice there, eh?) and have put themselves in a good position to make a run at a BCS game.

2. The defense has been phenomenal. We knew the defense would be good. But this good? No. 3 scoring defense in the country (9 points per game) good? With an early-season Heisman contender at linebacker and a pass-rusher as lethal as any in the country? Check out this stat unearthed yesterday by media relations director John Heisler: Notre Dame is now the only FBS football team in the country that has never trailed in a game so far in 2012.

3. The turnover margin. Want the biggest reason the Irish are undefeated? Look no further than their plus-2.25 turnover margin, third in the nation. The defense has forced 13 turnovers in four games, one shy of its season total from 2011. And more importantly, the offense has protected the ball, giving it away just four times this season. (It had five turnovers in each of its first two games last season.)

Worst

1. The quarterback situation is unsettled. Everett Golson has shown flashes of potential here and there, and he was a terrific game manager in both of the Irish's road contests. But he looked overwhelmed by the stage against Michigan, and Tommy Rees came in to save the day for the second time. The Irish are winning, so there's not much room to complain, but there is plenty of room for improvement from the quarterback of the future, regardless of how well Rees plays when he is in.

2. Little help from receiving unit. Defenses have wisely focused on Tyler Eifert, leaving the best tight end in America with just one catch over the past two games. No one has stepped up to make the plays with Eifert covered, leaving much room for the passing game as a whole. DaVaris Daniels, who left one game with an ankle sprain and barely played in another, leads the team with 159 receiving yards on the season.

3. Injury bug. The secondary will eventually be tested. Losing a fifth-year senior such as Jamoris Slaughter makes that eventual test all the more difficult. Make no mistake, the three starting newcomers, particularly Bennett Jackson, have done everything the Irish could have hoped for so far. Zeke Motta has emerged as a leader. But Slaughter's versatility is a big loss, and Notre Dame can't just rely on its front seven to be so dominant in every game this season.

Top storylines in October

1. Can the Irish run the table? Hey, they've done it so far. And it's easy for many to look ahead and think of a possible 7-0 Notre Dame team entering Norman, Okla., on Oct. 27. The daunting schedule looks far less daunting, and the Irish have every reason so far to feel that they can win every game. But they also have enough shortcomings that have kept them from running away in games they should win easily, so there is little margin for error against every October opponent.

2. Will the offense come through when needed? Offensive coordinator Chuck Martin made the point that the offense has delivered when called upon so far: against Purdue and against Michigan. But if the defense doesn't play at the same insanely high level it has so far, will the offense be consistent enough for four quarters to pick everyone up? Eventually the Irish will be tested to win a game with their offense, not in spite of it, and development there over the next month is crucial.

3. Quarterback situation. Check back next month, though I don't think this section will change.
SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Matthias Farley didn't want to play high school football because he didn't want to fit in. A little more than three years after first taking to the game, he is in a new position for a unit that is undergoing its second makeover in the past month alone.

And yes, he fits right in.

What's one more converted offensive player in the starting backfield of a defense tied for eighth nationally in scoring? Following the loss of safety Jamoris Slaughter -- who had successful surgery Wednesday for his ruptured left Achilles tendon -- Notre Dame's first-team secondary is down to a grand total of one player, Zeke Motta, who has spent his entire college career on the defensive side of the ball.

[+] EnlargeMatthias Farley
Cal Sport Media via AP ImagesNotre Dame's Matthias Farley says he is comfortable at safety after converting from receiver.
"It's crazy to me to think about how it all started and how it all began," said Farley, a converted receiver who was dedicated to soccer until his junior year of high school. "But looking at it from this point of view now, I feel like I've been well-prepared, even though I haven't played that long and have the God-given ability to do the role I have to do.

"It's definitely crazy. I'm sure it's even crazier from the outside-in, but I'm real calm about the whole thing and just confident."

The last thing Farley wanted to do as the youngest of six was follow his brothers and sisters in football or basketball, but consecutive losing seasons on the pitch -- while his football-playing friends at Charlotte (N.C.) Christian made a pair of deep postseason runs, no less -- soured the prep sophomore's affinity for soccer.

So he gave in to coach Jason Estep's pleas to try football, struggling with being the guy whose technique was an early source of criticism before adapting to his roles as safety and receiver, his potential at the latter attracting the eyes of the Irish.

"Matthias is a quick learner," Motta said. "He's got that ability that's something special. I think to be able to pick things up quickly and apply it out on the field -- he hasn't really played football for too long ,but you can tell his athletic ability and everything like that is helping in his preparation, and his mental focus is right where he needs to be."

Farley became a full-time safety after not playing last season as a freshman, and he rose to the rotation quickly before falling into place following Slaughter's injury Saturday. Aided by crutches, the mentor walked off the Spartan Stadium field afterward with his protege, telling Farley that all these lessons weren't for nothing.

With cornerback Lo Wood (preseason Achilles injury) giving way to converted freshman running back KeiVarae Russell, who is starting alongside converted receiver Bennett Jackson, Farley is now the latest fresh face in a secondary that was pegged as a liability before the Irish's 3-0 start.

The newest member of that unit hopes to add to the surprises for a defense holding opponents to just 10 points per game.

"We never talk about it; everybody has settled into the roles they have," Farley said. "Maybe they didn't start, they didn't come in doing the roles they're doing, but everyone's been working real hard, and I feel like the fruit of everyone's labor is being seen as far as the play goes."
Notre Dame placed 20 players on Phil Steele's preseason all-independent team, including 13 on the first team.

BYU was a close second with 18. Army and Navy each had seven.

The usual suspects (Cierre Wood, Manti Te'o, Tyler Eifert) make the first team, as does Notre Dame's entire starting defensive line, even without transfer Aaron Lynch. There are some leaps of faith here, but that's to be expected when picking 52 total players from a pool of just four schools, as many players are unproven. Bennett Jackson and Christian Lombard will likely be first-year starters, and who knows if Davonte Neal will even get the chance to return punts during his first year with the Irish.

Here are all of the Notre Dame players on Steele's preseason all-independent team:

FIRST TEAM
SECOND TEAM

Roster breakdown: Defense

March, 29, 2012
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Our breakdown of Notre Dame's 2012 roster continues today with the defensive side of the ball.

DEFENSIVE LINE

The players: Aaron Lynch, Louis Nix, Stephon Tuitt, Kapron Lewis-Moore, Tony Springmann, Chase Hounshell, Sheldon Day, Tyler Stockton, Kona Schwenke

The incoming: Jarron Jones, Romeo Okwara

[+] EnlargeLouis Nix
Ezra Shaw/Getty ImagesTackle Louis Nix is a key cog in what should be a strong, experienced defensive line for Notre Dame.
The breakdown: Injuries forced all three current starters — Lynch, Nix and Tuitt — to play much more than expected last season, and none disappointed. They are all second-year players now, and their pass-rushing ability should have opposing offensive lines and quarterbacks on their heels. Lewis-Moore has been cleared for spring following a season-ending knee injury in 2011 but might not start, though he will likely see plenty of playing time as the line rotates. Hounshell (shoulder surgery) is not cleared yet, but he will likely see significant time this fall after playing as a true freshman last year as well.

LINEBACKERS

The players: Danny Spond, Manti Te'o, Dan Fox, Prince Shembo, Kendall Moore, Ishaq Williams, Anthony Rabasa, Carlo Calabrese, Jarrett Grace, Justin Utopo, Connor Little, Ben Councell, Joe Schmidt

The incoming: None

The breakdown: As we said with Tyler Eifert yesterday, everyone knows what Te'o is capable of, as he likely would have been a first-round NFL draft pick had he left school following his junior year. Fox and Calabrese shared the other inside role last year, and their experience should prove valuable. Shembo has been working at the cat spot this spring, and up-and-coming talents like Williams and Spond figure to see extensive playing time.

SECONDARY

The players: Bennett Jackson, Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Dan McCarthy, Jalen Brown, Cam McDaniel, Eilar Hardy, Chris Salvi, Joe Romano, Will Salvi, Connor Cavalaris, Matthias Farley, Blake Breslau

The incoming: Elijah Shumate, Nicky Baratti, C.J. Prosise, John Turner

The breakdown: The loss of Tee Shepard really stings this group, which is down to four scholarship corners with a combined zero career starts. Jackson and Wood are in position to take over as the new starters, and playing time last season should help with the transition. At safety, Slaughter and Motta saw plenty of time the last two seasons, and Slaughter in particular has shown a nose for the ball and the capability of providing a leadership force that Harrison Smith is leaving behind. Collinsworth will likely also see plenty of snaps after playing last year.

Notre Dame recruiting needs

January, 31, 2012
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With national signing day less than a week away, here's a look at what Notre Dame needs from its 2012 recruiting class:

Running backs: The reliable Cierre Wood has one more year left, and the answers behind him remain a mystery. We have not seen nearly enough of George Atkinson III or Cam McDaniel to know how they will turn out, and who knows where Theo Riddick will line up once the 2012 season kicks off? Help is on the way, however, in the form of William Mahone (Youngstown, OH/Austintown Fitch) and KeiVarae Russell (Everett, Wash./Mariner), ESPNU's No. 16 and No. 26 running backs, respectively. Throw in USC transfer Amir Carlisle, and things are looking bright in the Irish backfield moving forward.

Wide receivers: You can't expect to replace Michael Floyd, who re-wrote the school record books. But the drop-off after Floyd is noticeable, and finding targets for the plethora of quarterbacks on the roster is a must. Fortunately for the Irish, they may have those coming in Justin Ferguson (Pembroke Pines, Fla./Flanagan), Deontay Greenberry (Fresno, Calif./Washington Union) and Chris Brown (Hanahan, S.C./Hanahan) — ESPNU's 14th, 17th and 66th best receivers from this class, respectively.

Cornerbacks: Two new starters will take the field next year. Bennett Jackson and Lo Wood saw playing time as reserves this past season, but the unit is pretty thin, with the inexperienced Josh Atkinson and Jalen Brown behind them. ESPNU No. 9 cornerback Tee Shepard (Fresno, Calif./Washington Union) enrolled early and could provide immediate help, but depth could be an issue at this position.

Safety: Speaking of the secondary, Notre Dame will have to replace captain Harrison Smith and, soon enough, co-starters Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter, too. Austin Collinsworth could be a starter next season, and Eilar Hardy figures to see the field after redshirting this past season. ESPNU No. 14 safety Elijah Shumate (Ramsey, N.J/Don Bosco), No. 22 C.J. Prosise (Woodberry Forest, Va./Woodberry Forest) and No. 62 John Turner (Indianapolis/Cathedral) are on the way, as is No. 87 athlete Nicky Baratti (Spring, Texas/Klein Oak). Chris Badger returns from a Mormon mission, too.

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