Noie: Confidence not a concern for Notre Dame safety Paul Moala
Soaking in the surroundings in the massive football playground two days before an equally large game last month, Notre Dame freshman safety Paul Moala just smiled.
The game — a College Football Playoff national semifinal against No. 2 Clemson at AT&T Stadium — was the last in his first season with the Irish. A season that saw Moala come a long way from his days as a standout at Penn High School, where he could often thrive on his God-given talent. He didn’t know much about nutrition and training and everything else that would factor into that first college season.
Looking around at everything during Cotton Bowl media day, the first day he was available to speak about his freshman year, the 6-foot, 212-pound Moala admitted that he was a long way from TCU Freed Field and those Northern Indiana Conference football Friday nights.
“It’s been an exciting experience,” Moala said. “It’s just another football field, but I mean, just to be with this group of guys is surreal. To play with such star athletes and have them close to you and locker next to them is unbelievable.”
To understand how far Moala ventured during his first fall at Notre Dame, you have to go back to the beginning. Back before he became a regular on special teams. Back before he looked like another lost and sometimes lonely freshman during training camp at Culver Academy. Back before he understood how demanding the strength and conditioning program was under Matt Balis and his three-cone drill that helped whip Moala into better football shape.
Back when he made the short trek from his parents’ home in Mishawaka to campus in mid-June when he and his fellow freshmen reported for summer school.
Move-in day can be an intimidating adventure. You don’t know who’s who, don’t know where to go, don’t know what to do. It’s exciting. It’s scary. But when Moala packed up his life for a new one nearby, he made sure to pack something he was sure he was going to need.
Making the jump from high school hotshot — he was a first team all-conference selection and NIC North Division most valuable player his senior season — to Notre Dame is a large leap. It’s one that Moala knew he had to make, a leap he knew he could make.
Right from the jump. The first day he walked into the locker room at the Guglielmino Center, it felt like home. He felt like he could find his place in the football program. Felt like he deserved to have a locker near the likes of Te’von Coney and Alohi Gilman and Drue Tranquill, all of whom carry a rather large presence on and off the football field.
“You have to be confident in yourself before you do anything,” Moala said. “When I first got here, it was a humbling experience, but I had to be confident in myself if I wanted to improve.
“I took that with me to practice every day.”
Took it on the 44-mile trip down to Culver for preseason practices, when Moala played the part of a freshman. Each time the horn sounded and another practice period had passed, he had to ask himself where he went next. Over to Oliver Field for special teams duties? Back behind the home bleachers for position work? All the drills and meetings and workouts and demands on a big-time college football player was big-time overwhelming.
“I was struggling a bit in the beginning,” Moala said. “But I put all my efforts into improving. Get better inch by inch. No giant leaps. That was a good way for me to become better.
“You get the hang of things after a while.”
Even as he struggled to keep pace, Moala caught the eye of the coaching staff. Defensive backs coach Terry Joseph saw a kid learning to adapt to the speed of the game, sometimes unsure of his next step those first few days and weeks, even months. But the more Moala worked his craft, the more confident he became that the next step he’d take was the right one.
Preseason in Culver, then back on campus was pretty much the same for Moala. One step forward, sometimes two back. Ditto for Michigan week. And Ball State. And Vanderbilt. By the time Wake Forest prep week arrived, Joseph noticed a new Moala.
Instead of looking lost, he was locked in.
“You really saw the button kind of click on like, ‘Hey, I’ve got it,’” Joseph said. “He attacked his work every day. He really started showing everything that I watched on his recruiting tape and what he was in high school as far as being a big, physical football player.”
With Gilman and fellow veteran Jalen Elliott having locked down the safety spot, there was no need for Moala to see the field at that spot. That was fine. Coming in as a three-star recruit, Moala knew he’d have to break through first on special teams. Be a coverage guy. A run-down-the-field-and-try-to-blow-someone-up guy. He embraced that opportunity. All he wanted was a chance. Special teams was that chance.
By the time Notre Dame traveled to Virginia Tech in early October, Moala had worked his way onto the coverage teams. He made his debut in Blacksburg. As it got deeper into the season, his name often was mentioned whenever coach Brian Kelly was asked about his freshmen. Who was showing well? Who had a chance to play more? Who was one to watch?
Moala. Moala. Moala.
That recognition could have been enough for Moala to feel satisfied. In the steps he took his first year. In his development. In his future. It had the opposite effect. Each time he heard Kelly say his name during his Tuesday afternoon pressers, Moala tried to ignore it. He wanted to stay hungry and humbled, never act like he’d arrived.
“To hear that from Coach Kelly is surreal,” said Moala, who registered his only tackle in the Shamrock Series game against Syracuse at Yankee Stadium. “To have him say those things are great, but you don’t want to take that and accept it. You want to take it and move forward and improve your game. That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
That’s what Moala is doing during winter conditioning before his first round of spring practice commences in early March. Moala appeared in eight games. Only six true freshmen in a signing class of 27 appeared in more games for the Irish in 2018 than Moala. Gilman’s the starter at free safety heading into 2019. Backup Devin Studstill will be a senior. True freshman Kyle Hamilton will push for an early role. Moala likely is ticketed for another role on special teams as a sophomore.
That’s cool with the always-chill Moala. He’s a better football player today than when he arrived. And getting better in all phases, be it his approach to the game, his knowledge of the game, his conditioning to play the game. He’s excited to see where the next three years will take him.
“The future,” Joseph said, “is really bright for Paul.”