by Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
What is a breakout player? Defining that term isn’t exactly easy. Although Notre Dame fans are likely already familiar with the names on this list, this is Athlon’s attempt to peg the players that will be household names at the end of the 2011 season. These players may have started at some point in their career, but have yet to become a name familiar with all college football fans.
Aaron Lynch, DE – There’s a lot of optimism surrounding the Notre Dame defense this season. The Irish allowed only 39 points in the final four games of 2010 and return eight starters from that unit, including All-American linebacker Manti Te’o. Adding to the potential of the defense is one of the top defensive line recruiting classes in the nation. Lynch is the headliner of that group, ranking as the No. 22 prospect in the 2011 Athlon Consensus 100. He enrolled early and wrecked havoc on the offense, collecting six tackles and a quarterback rush in the spring game. The Irish won’t need Lynch to start with Ethan Johnson and Kapron Lewis-Moore returning at end, but expect the true freshman to log significant minutes and should be one of the defense’s top pass rushers.
Zack Martin, OT – With four starters back, the offensive line should be a strength for Notre Dame in 2011. This group is anchored by three seniors, but Martin is one of the top sophomore offensive line prospects in college football. Martin started all 13 games as a freshman last season, with 11 of those coming at left tackle. The sophomore will be tasked with protecting the blindside of Dayne Crist or Tommy Rees this season and with the returning pieces around him, this could be one of the better Irish offensive lines in recent years. If Martin picks up where he left off last season, don’t be surprised if he earns All-American honors by the end of 2011.
Theo Riddick, WR – Riddick was off to a solid start last year, catching 33 passes during an early season four-game stretch. However, an ankle injury against Western Michigan limited his effectiveness the rest of the way. Riddick finished the year with 40 receptions for 414 yards and three scores, along with 29 yards on the ground. The Irish would like get Riddick as many touches as possible, so expect to see him used on returns, in addition to his offensive duties. With the junior returning to full health, he should threaten 70 catches and become a key cog in the Irish passing attack. With Michael Floyd and TJ Jones returning, along with Riddick’s development, Notre Dame will field one of the top receiving corps in college football.
Prince Shembo, LB – With Manti Te’o, Carlo Calabrese and Darius Fleming returning, the Irish already own one of the nation’s top 10 linebacking corps. But this group could get even better with Shembo’s continued emergence. He played in all 13 games last year, registering 15 tackles, 4.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Shembo was used only as a reserve last year, but is ticked for a spot in the starting lineup as an outside linebacker. The sophomore should push for the team lead in sacks and at 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, will be counted upon to help Notre Dame's rush defense continue to improve upon last season's numbers.
Cierre Wood, RB – The Irish finished a disappointing 92nd nationally in rushing offense last year, but that number should improve in 2011. Wood emerged as Notre Dame’s top back over the second half of last year, tallying 329 of his 603 yards in the final four games. He also managed 20 receptions last season and averaged 20 yards per kick return. After providing a spark for the rushing attack at the end of 2010, Wood will open the year as Notre Dame’s top back and should post around 200 carries. With more opportunities to shine and an experienced offensive line, Wood should easily surpass 1,000 yards in 2011.
Others to Watch
Tyler Eifert, TE – Caught 26 of his 27 receptions over the final seven games of last season. With Kyle Rudolph off to the NFL, expect Eifert to become a bigger part of the offense.
TJ Jones, WR – Another valuable weapon in the Notre Dame passing attack and should be better with another offseason to pickup the playbook.
Louis Nix, NG – Should be a perfect replacement for Ian Williams in the middle of the line. At 6-foot-3 and 326 pounds, Nix has the size and strength to hold up against the run and is having a solid fall camp.
Other Notre Dame Content: