Inside Zeke Motta’s helmet, scraggly facial hair has slowly formed into an unkempt beard. Each whisker has seen win after win accumulate in the Notre Dame 2012 season and formed a hair follicle fad.
Born was the “Beard Gang,” which came with its own hashtag (#beardgang) and hierarchy.
Right guard Mike Golic Jr. owns the beard with the most bulk, defensive end Kapron Lewis-Moore’s beard could belong to a rap superstar Rick Ross, and safety Matthias Farley’s beard could suit the top of his head as well as it fits his chin.
Four months later the beards have become half habit, part purpose.
“There’s definitely a purpose to the beard,” said the senior safety Motta. “It’s a great sign of symbolism of our evolution through the season going in and winning each week. We haven’t cut these beards. It’s kinda been one of those lucky charms for us almost. Not to be superstitious or anything like that. Everybody loves being a part of it — those that can grow beards.”
Beard envy? Sure. Beard maintenance? Not so much. But any preconception of Notre Dame players being clean-cut and soft hasn’t seen this Irish team up close, with or without helmets.
“I’m sure it helps a little bit with that,” Motta said when asked if the beards serve as a point of intimidation. “You don’t want everybody out here with baby faces.”
Facial hair seems only fitting for an Irish team that’s emphasized a return to toughness on offense and defense that starts in the trenches and works into the backfield and secondary.
And with all the question marks that accompanied the secondary coming into the season, the Irish unit has three of the top five tacklers on the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense.
A high number of tackles in the secondary often means a defense is giving up too many yards, but that’s not the case for the Irish. Motta isn’t exactly sure why the stats have ended up that way, but knows it’s working.
“It just fits for us. I don’t really know how I could explain it,” Motta said. “It just fits for our scheme.”
Motta’s done as well keeping the ball in front of him at safety as he has keeping the ball-carrier below him with 61 tackles, tied for second on the team with cornerback Bennett Jackson.
“It’s definitely what we are coached to do,” Motta said. “When the time comes that’s what we need to be able to do. We practice that and prepare for that every day.”
The stock of Motta has risen in the eyes of NFL management and the safety will likely hear his name called in April’s draft. He won’t be selected in the first round like ND’s Harrison Smith was last year, but the Minnesota Viking has provided a model of success for Motta.
Motta said he can’t pinpoint one particular thing that’s allowed him to elevate his game this year, rather it’s been a culmination of four years of work that’s led him to where he’s at now.
“I would have to say that my growth as a human being, the people I’ve been around here at Notre Dame have all been great influences in my life to help me evolve the way that I have, especially out on the football field,” Motta said. “I’ve taken notes and advice from certain people and really tried to put that into motion out on the field and especially with our preparation that we do from week to week.”
He’s not afraid to admit that the NFL has been a dream of his and he’s starting to see the path being laid for him.
“It definitely is one of my motivations,” Motta said. “I’ve certainly set goals for myself to try and achieve. We as people set goals for ourselves in daily life. I’m no different.”
But first, Motta has his eyes on Alabama. As a senior he’s watched endless hours of film, and that’s no different with such a long layoff before playing the national championship game.
When asked if he ever gets tired of watching too much film on Alabama, Motta doesn’t laugh and looks back at the reporter in befuddlement.
“I don’t really, but maybe some people do,” Motta said. “You can pick out a whole bunch of different things when you’re watching film.”
Midway through December the senior safety had already identified keys for the Irish defense.
“Alabama has a great O-line and they have a great running game. We need to be able to establish some sort of physicality with them and have the secondary be on their ‘A’ game because with a great run game comes play-action passes down field and everything like that,” Motta said. “We’re focusing on that and we see the challenge ahead. We’re going to do the best that we can to prepare for that.”
The Irish have come a long way and Motta has the beard to prove it.
“At this point we’re really trying to focus on watching the film, getting our bodies back healthy and preparing for one of the biggest games of our lives,” Motta said. “That’s where we’re at right now. We know that we have a big challenge ahead of us and so we’re not going to take anything lightly.”