So far this week we’ve taken a look at some freshman ready to contribute and some sophomores ready for increased playing time. Today we move up the class ladder and look at some upper classmen who have contributed over the last few years, but are ready to elevate their games to a new level.
Theo Riddick – Riddick was on his way to a very, very nice season in 2010 before injuries derailed his first year at wide receiver. After a slow start in weeks 1 and 2, Riddick started to establish himself at receiver in week 3 against Michigan State. In Notre Dame’s heart breaking loss Riddick had his break out game with 10 catches for 128 and his first career touchdown. Over a four week stretch starting with the MSU game, Riddick caught 33 passes for 343 yards and 3 touchdowns. Then he got hurt in the early goings against Western Michigan would only catch two more passes for a mere six yards the rest of the season.
If Riddick can stay healthy in 2011 he has the skillset to flourish in the Notre Dame offense and if Michael Floyd is on the field drawing the attention of opposing secondaries, Riddick will have a lot of room to make plays. Riddick also gives Kelly and Charley Molnar the option of using him out of the backfield and on reverses – something we didn’t see a whole lot of in 2010 because of his injuries. We did get a glimpse of his playmaking capabilites in this capacity against USC and in the Blue Gold Game though.
Assuming he stays healthy, Riddick is my pick for the breakout player of the year for Notre Dame in 2011.
Cierre Wood – After Armando Allen was lost for the season in 2010, the starting running back duties were handed over to Wood and did little to disappoint. Over the last five games of the season Wood averaged 77.4 yards a game and over 5.0 yards a carry. Wood showed some breakaway speed out of the backfield too including two touchdown runs of 30 yards or more on the season – something Allen never did in a single season. With little depth behind him, Wood stands to see an increased workload in 2011 and all signs point to him being ready for the challenge. The one area he will need to improve on, however, is his receiving. Outside of the Tulsa game when Wood caught 5 passes for 57 yards and scored twice through the air, Wood was not a huge threat as a receiver out of the backfield. If he gets that down, he could have a huge season.
Tyler Eifert – This one is almost too easy. Eifter stepped in for an injured Kyle Rudolph last year and really blossomed. Eifert has all of the tools to be a game breaking tight end in Brian Kelly’s offense in very much the same way we all envisioned Kyle Rudolph being before injuries ruined his last year in South Bend. For the year, Eifert hauled in 27 passes for 352 yards and scored a pair of touchdowns. With a full season as the starting tight end, those numbers are almost certain to shoot up substantially in 2011.
Darius Fleming – Fleming has been a starter for most of the past two seasons, but up until now he hasn’t quite reached the potential many felt he possessed when Notre Dame recruited four years ago. Fleming lead the Irish with 5.5 sacks in 2010, but after the success the Cincinnati defenses had in generating sacks during Kelly’s tenure there, many felt Fleming would flirt with double digits in sacks. Being able to settle in at outside linebacker after moving back and forth between outside linebacker and defensive end while Charlie Weis played musical defensive coordinators over his final three seasons should allow Fleming to finally break through and be the pass rushing nightmare he was expected to be.
Chris Watt – During his first two seasons in South Bend Watt didn’t start a single game, but he did play in all 13 contests last year as a backup guard. With Chris Stewart’s graduation, a starting guard position is up for grabs and right now it looks like it’s Watt’s to lose. We’ve heard a lot of positive comments regarding Watt from both the Weis staff and the current staff, and in 2011 it could be time we see why all of those comments were made. With four returning starters on the offensive line, Watt will step into a situation that is made for him to succeed. He’ll have experienced players all around him to help him out along the way and he’ll be shielded somewhat by playing inside. Watt could very well be this year’s Zach Martin.
Robert Blanton – After seeing a lot of playing time very early in his career, Blanton was in and out of the dog house in 2009 and played primarily as the third corner in 2010. With Darrin Walls’ graduation, Blanton will step into a starting spot and opposite Gary Gray. Blanton has all of the tools to flourish in this defense and with no eligibility left after this season it’s now or never time for Blanton. He’s never lacked confidence needed to play the corner position and by the end of the season a very good argument could have been made that he was the team’s second best corner behind Gray (who didn’t make this list because he was already the best corner on the Irish roster last year).
Zeke Motta – With Jamoris Slaughter slowed by injuries last year, Zeke Motta seized the opportunity and established himself as the starting strong safety – a position he held throughout spring practice. Motta ended up starting eight games last year while racking up 50 tackles. He has always been very physically gifted but he flipped around between linebacker and safety much the way Harrison Smith did early in his career. He seems to have settled in nicely for the Irish at safety and if he can hold off Slaughter, who won’t go down without a fight this fall, he’ll be in line for a very good season.
If all seven of these players take their games to the next level in 2011, Notre Dame will be in store for a very, very good season.