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December 31, 2008

Army Bowl Irish recruits eager to restore luster

MORE: Notre Dame commits interview | U.S. Army AA Bowl coverage | More all-star coverage

SAN ANTONIO Asked if he knew who Knute Rockne was Zeke Motta gave a tight-lipped smile and shook his head.

The Gipper? Same response.

The Four Horsemen?

"I don't know them by name, but I've heard of them," said Motta, a four-star rated linebacker from Vero Beach, Fla., who has pledged to play college football at Notre Dame. "I saw them on a film the coaches showed me."

Motta admitted he didn't know about Notre Dame's legendary "Four Horsemen" and how they swept Army over the precipice while outlined against a blue-gray October sky until he visited South Bend.

Shaquelle Evans, a four-star rated wide receiver from Inglewood, Calif., also failed the impromptu test. But he also is going to play for Notre Dame.

Obviously, Notre Dame's storied football folklore and treasured history doesn't strike a chord with today's elite high school prospects. They only know the Irish as the team that has won just 10 of 25 football games over the last two seasons.

But even if Notre Dame's once-brilliant mystique has faded it still shows up enough that many of the country's most heralded players have either committed to play for the Irish or still profess interest in helping them regain status among the nation's perennial football powerhouses.

Evans and Motta are among five players rated four-star recruits by Rivals.com that are in this week's U.S. Army All-American Bowl. All will have a chance to play immediately and bolster areas in which the Irish need an upgrade.

"I can see the program turning," said Tyler Stockton, a four-star rated nose tackle from New Jersey who is committed to Notre Dame. "They have a lot of young players and we're (the 2009 recruiting class) part of the solution."

Evans echoed that.

(Notre Dame) did OK this year and we'll be better next year with the young talent coming in like myself, (running back) Cierre Wood and (linebacker Zeke) Motta. We'll be winning.
- Notre Dame WR commit Shaquelle Evans
"They just don't have a lot of experience yet, but next year we will," Evans said. "We did OK this year and we'll be better next year with the young talent coming in like myself, (running back) Cierre Wood and Motta. We'll be winning."

Elite football players never lack for confidence. However, they sometimes lack perspective.

Do they know that winning and winning at Notre Dame are completely different entities?

This season the Irish finished 7-6 with a 49-21 victory over Hawaii in the Hawaii Bowl. And while that qualifies as a winning season it's also reason for head coach Charlie Weis' job to be in jeopardy.

A seven-victory season won't suffice at Notre Dame, especially when it follows a year in which the Irish posted a mere three wins.

Weis did guide the Irish to BCS bowl games in 2005 and 2006, but both times the Irish were beaten handily -- by Ohio State in the Fiesta Bowl and LSU in the Sugar Bowl.

Notre Dame demands to play in high-profile bowl games and to be in the national championship hunt. Apparently, a couple of disappointing seasons can be forgiven, but if the Irish fall short again in 2009 or at least don't make significant progress Weis could be dismissed.

Yet, there are reasons for optimism, not the least of which is this year's recruiting class is currently ranked No. 12 in the nation by Rivals.com, could move up higher, and will provide an infusion of athletic talent to the Irish.

"The coaches told me I would come in and play quicker than I want to," Evans said. "I said that's impossible because I want to play as quick as I can.

"It's a young team and I want to be on the team that rises from the bottom to the top."

Motta thinks he can help right away, too.

"I feel right now they have the tools. Notre Dame has a great coaching staff and great players and I feel like maybe I can go in there and help change things," he said. "I think we (incoming freshmen) are going to play early and help out a lot. There are a lot of returning freshmen, so there will be a lot of competition."

Five freshmen started in the Hawaii Bowl, including standout receiver Michael Floyd.

Also, quarterback Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate, another stellar receiver, were among four sophomores in the starting lineup.

Notre Dame in 2007 and 2008 assembled recruiting classes rated among the nation's top 10. This year's class currently is ranked 12th in the country.

However, the Rivals.com list of the nation's top 250 prospects includes eight that are non-committed and still say they're interest in Notre Dame. If Weis can land a couple of those Notre Dame could assemble a top 10-rated class for the third straight year.

Of course, the Irish will still be a young team in '09. The most advantageous situation is when the best players are seniors and juniors not sophomores and freshmen.

But why not expect the players to improve as they gain experience. Clausen made significant strides this season and figures to be even better with Tate and Floyd returning and Evans coming in.

He would be even more effective if the Irish can upgrade a dismal running game that produced an average of just 109.7 yards to rank 100th in the nation.

Four starting linemen will return, and five linemen that were part of last year's recruiting class that ranked second in the nation should be ready to contribute.

Plus, the running game could get a huge boost from Woods, a 192-pound lightning bolt that can take advantage of a modest crease to score from anywhere on the field.

Defensively, Notre Dame was frustratingly average, but at least Irish can be encouraged by the fact that Weis is getting players elite programs coveted.

Stockton turned down USC and Penn State, while Motta chose Notre Dame over Florida.

Motta plans to study Business Marketing and International Business, so he opted for Notre Dame thinking it had international alumni that might be beneficial after his playing days are finished.

But that's not the only reason he's bound for South Bend.

"There were a lot of factors," Motta said. "Me and my dad (Bill) made a key chart of all the things that play into where to go distance from home, city population, undergraduates, percentage of graduation rates for players. There were a lot of factors.

"We narrowed the list down as time went on and when we were looking at the whole package it came down to Notre Dame and Florida. Not to discredit Florida, but I chose Notre Dame because I felt I fit better and Notre Dame has a great program.

"I felt like maybe I could contribute to the rise of Notre Dame."



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