Notre Dame has an experienced team coming back in 2011, with 20 players who started at least seven games last season. But there are also plenty of opportunities for young players to make an impact, like Tommy Rees and Cierre Wood did last year.
Today, we'll take a look at a few underclassmen who could step up and become difference-makers this season. We'll define underclassmen as those who are in their first or second year of playing -- remember, Notre Dame doesn't officially do redshirts -- then talk about a few true freshmen who could make a splash. We'll limit these to three in each category and try to focus on those players who haven't seen a lot of action so far.
Sophomores who have played
1. Bennett Jackson, CB: Jackson was recruited as a receiver but did his best work in 2010 on special teams as both a returner and a tackler. He was moved to cornerback in the spring to help shore up a thin position. He'll see some playing time there, and if anything happens to Gary Gray or Robert Blanton, Jackson will instantly become vitally important.
2. Prince Shembo and Danny Spond, OLB: We're combining these two into one because both are expected to compete for the starting job at one of the outside linebacker positions. Both saw action last season as backups and showed promise at times. Shembo has excellent speed, while former high school quarterback Spond has adjusted well to defense.
3. Kona Schwenke, DE: The Hawaiian became a surprise contributor late in the season after Ian Williams' injury. He has put on a lot of weight since coming to campus and is now up to 6-foot-4, 285 pounds. He'll push for playing time in what is becoming a very deep position for the Irish.
Sophomores who haven't played
1. Lucas Nix, NG: Nix was a highly rated recruit who came to campus extremely overweight. He has shed more than 40 pounds and was listed at 326 to start fall practice. He still might not be in good enough shape to play every down, but if he can give about 20 quality snaps in the middle of that defensive line, he can provide a valuable run-stuffing presence.
2. Andrew Hendrix, QB: The offensive MVP of the spring game, Hendrix is in a four-way competition for the starting quarterback job. Or, more accurately, he's in a competition with true freshman Everett Golson to be the change-of-pace, running-threat quarterback in special packages. Either he or Golson will likely have an impact on the season at some point.
3. Christian Lombard and Tate Nichols, OT: Lombard and Nichols are big, talented tackle prospects Notre Dame had the luxury of grooming without playing last season. With Zack Martin and Taylor Dever returning as the starting tackles, Lombard and Nichols will begin the season as backups but will factor into the rotation. They're just an injury or a lackluster performance away from being very important.
1. Aaron Lynch, DE: The breakout star of the spring game, Lynch wowed everybody with his speed and instincts as a pass-rusher. He'll likely start out as more of a situational player, but if he continues to grow and play like he did in the spring, he'll force his way into more and more snaps.
2. DaVaris Daniels, WR: The Irish are looking for more playmakers at wide receiver to complement Michael Floyd and Theo Riddick, and the coaching staff is high on Daniels' potential. The 6-foot-1 freshman has the pedigree, as his father played 15 years in the NFL at defensive end. He'll have to learn quickly, though, as he did not arrive until the summer.
3. Ishaq Williams, OLB: Like Lynch, Williams went through spring practice to get an early acclimation to college. The highly rated recruit has more experienced players in front of him at outside linebacker, but he's a physical force at 6-5, 255 pounds. At the very least, he can be used on third downs as a pass-rush specialist.