Most people would enter their last year of collegiate football concerned with their future and where they will end up. Make no mistake, every player thinks about this. Some players, however, are more concerned with the legacy they leave behind than personal accolades. Fresno State defensive end Nikko Motta is one of the rare players who is focused on leaving his program in better shape than he found it.
"As far as me stepping up and being a leader - that kinda comes first," Motta said. "Having Tyeler [Davison] and Andy Jennings being All-Mountain West guys - he's [Davison] First-team. Andy is Second-team, he could have just as easily been first. He just got hurt toward the end. I'm trying to raise my gameplay to pick up to those guys. You know, if we have that, I think we're one of the better defensive lines, probably in the nation, let alone our conference. So that's one of the personal goals I set for myself. The big one is being a leader, first and foremost.
"Then the play will come by itself. It'll pick up and we'll get these guys getting double teams. With Tyeler and Andy getting double-teamed, it will free me up a bit for one-on-ones. That comes along with being in better shape and stuff like that."
Motta's own determination to get better this season will be a big motivator for how he handles his preparations and what he will be expecting of others.
"Kinda like how I started off with Tyeler Davison and Andy Jennings, I mean, those guys are two All-Mountain West guys on the defensive line. There's three people starting and I'm the only one left out. I mean, it's kind of embarrassing. But, at the same time, I'm not going to sugar coat it. They don't really say much. It's not really talked about. They don't brag about it. They don't give me any crap about it."
Unsure if the guys gave Motta a hard time about his not having All-Mountain West status, FSBulldogs.com queried as to whether or not they held any secret meetings or movie nights to which Motta wasn't invited.
"Not that I know of! I mean, we're all pretty close on the defensive line," Motta said. "I want to be All-Mountain West. It doesn't really matter what. I'm just trying to get up there with them and have three guys on the defensive line that are All-Mountain West. So that's one of my goals, and the other one is to be a leader, again. Let's guide this team to a great season."
There's that 'leadership' word again. A theme so prevalent in Coach Tim DeRuyter's Bulldogs, you find it mentioned in almost every interview. It would appear that much of 2013 will be determined by the leaders on the Fresno State Bulldogs. Hardly afraid of having his number called, Motta plans to rise up and answer the challenge.
"As far as with me, I'm kind of a funny guy," Motta said. "I like to just get at people and mess around. I still kinda do that, but when it comes to business, I think the guys can understand that it's time to go and it's not mess-around time. We have a lot of mature guys that understand, like Davante Adams on the offense, and Derek Carr, especially. He's one of the best leaders you can have.
"So, while we're running and stuff like that, I try to tell our guys to pick it up, especially the defensive line. I bring us up afterwards and we kinda talk like, 'you know what? This is what we expect and this is how you have to act. We don't expect an offensive lineman to beat you during these runs,' and stuff like that. So, I start with my group first and then I'll expand to other areas of the defense."
Of course, the Bulldogs will need more than just one or two people to step up this year if they expect to repeat as Mountain West champions. But Bulldog fans can't rest a little easier knowing that Motta isn't the only person to step up and assume a leadership role.
"Well, on the defensive side, I'd probably have to go with Jeremiah Toma," Motta said of those who have identified themselves as leaders early on. "He's a linebacker. I think he's always been there as the guide. Another thing, after losing Phillip Thomas, which was a big loss, I feel we need some guys to step up. Which I'm trying to do, but a lot of guys would look toward Tyeler, as well. Just because of the way he goes about himself and what he does.
"But just in general, as a team usually everything is split in college football. It's always offense, defense. We're out in a white jersey and the offense wears red. But Isaiah Burse, talking about offensive guys now, is another guy that's been killing me in summer workouts as far as running hard, lifting, and busting his butt. Which a lot of other guys are, but people see Burse and he kinda brought us up the other day after running and told us, "You know what? We don't expect anything less from you guys. We're gonna go at you guys and if you don't like that, then you don't have to be here.'"
Part of being a leader is identifying guys that are ready to step up and make a larger contribution. Motta isn't shy with giving recognition to his teammates for their efforts.
"I think a guy that's done that has been Charles Washington," Motta said when asked which teammates he thought would rise to the challenge. "He's a younger guy. He still has a lot of growing up to do, but this summer we'd help him out a lot. Of course, you can never simulate game speed or game-time. It comes with games and experience. But with him, he needs to just get it going, get the playbook a little bit, and he's a guy that's a real explosive type of player. A little different player than Phillip.
"Phillip was real smart. But he's a little stronger than Phillip. He's a faster kid, I think. So it's a little different setup there. But Phillip is what he is. You saw what he did. He's obviously with the [Washington] Redskins right now, killing it. It is what it is. But I think Charles wants - that's obviously good for him. You want somebody to step up. You see a guy like Phillip, that's mentored him, and you always wanna be in competition with yourself. You don't want to think someone is better than you or like, 'That guy . . . Man, I hope I can do it.' No, it's a, 'I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna step up for my team,' kind of deal."
One of the biggest challenges for this veteran group of players will be to curtail the expectations of the youngsters and keeping them focused on each game. Motta assured FSBulldogs.com that everyone has tuned out the noise, from the players to the coaches. They understand that last year's finish was unacceptable and it's served as a building block for their preparations this year.
"With us -- as far as all those ratings, with us being ranked and stuff like that - we don't pay any attention to it and if you do, you're a fool," Motta said. "Because we know as well as anybody that you can easily get knocked off and how we came out against Southern Methodist University and played that game, just kinda shows - which was last season and all that stuff, we're forgetting about it, but that stuff's always on the back of our mind. You just don't forget stuff like that. So that twenty-second ranking, or whatever they have us at in these things, we don't look at it. It's nice. It looks good. It'll bring fans in and stuff like that. That's good, but we're looking to take this workout by workout, day by day, and we don't really get above ourselves."
For all the hype the Bulldogs have received this off-season, they've put even more work into ensuring a system of accountability and preparedness. For Motta, results are a by-product of the effort that you give throughout the year. Taking teams or your preparations lightly is the surest way to find yourself on the outside looking in when the season draws to a close.
"We know we still have a lot of work to do," Motta said. "But we have a lot of guys stepping up after losing Phillip Thomas. We have Charles Washington and those type of guys. And now with Sean Alston being injured - or whatever his deal is, I don't really know - we're gonna have to have some guys step up at cornerback. So, I mean, we try to bring these guys up, like a Shannon Edwards, for instance. He's a guy that might have to step up. I try to get in his ear during spring ball and tell him, 'It's time to put the big-boy pants on. It's time to go.' It's not little ball we saw from Rutgers. We're not starting off with one of those free games, as some would say. That ranking stuff will come. We just gotta focus on each other, ourselves, and getting to where we need to be. We know how we finished off last year is not where we needed to be. We need to build on that. And losing some key players, a few guys that were kinda the heart and soul of our team - we gotta find new guys that are gonna step up and carry that flag still."
Nikko Motta already has two hands on the flag pole and is headed up college football's Iwo Jima. Which Bulldogs are going to help him carry that flag to victory?
Stay tuned to FSBulldogs.com for more updates on the Fresno State 2014 recruiting class and upcoming football season.
Josh Webb is a special contributor to FSBulldogs.com. You can follow him on Twitter at @BulldogsTwist.