Looking at 2011's best freshmen

Notre Dame received key contributions from several newcomers this season. Here, we honor those who made their mark early while turning an eye toward the future.

Offensive: George Atkinson III

We found a loophole in this one. But simply said, Atkinson was clearly the best Irish freshman with the ball in his hands. He returned two kickoffs for scores this season, giving Notre Dame some breathing room against Michigan State and bringing them right back into it against USC after falling behind 17-0 early. His future is in the backfield, where he received just nine carries on the season for 27 yards, but he certainly injected some life into a special teams unit that needed every jolt it could get in 2011. Atkinson finished the season 15th in the nation in kickoff returns, averaging 27.4 yards per return.

Defensive: Aaron Lynch

The defensive end exploded onto the scene early, registering a sack, a forced fumble and six quarterback hurries Week 3 against Michigan State. No Notre Dame player recorded that many hurries throughout all of 2010. Lynch has four sacks, 5.5 tackles for loss and 13 hurries on the season. Injuries forced Lynch into five starts and more action than anyone could have expected before the season, but he did not disappoint with his performance. A little more discipline after the whistle, and he will have big things ahead of him in a Notre Dame uniform.

Redshirt: Louis Nix

Remember last spring, when Nix was told he would get 12-15 snaps per game? Sure seems like a long time ago. In his first season, the sophomore ended up starting 10 games, finishing with 42 tackles, 0.5 sacks and four tackles for loss. He dropped more than 40 pounds from a year ago and, with fellow nose guard Sean Cwynar limited through much of the first half of the season with a broken right hand, took full advantage of his extended playing time.

One to watch for 2012: Everett Golson

The offensive scout team player of the year and highly-touted quarterback recruit will compete with Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix for next season's starting job. Golson remains much of a mystery as he has redshirted this season and reporters have not been allowed to view practice since the season began. But he is one more man in what is shaping up to be a crowded position battle for 2012, and his skill set could translate nicely in Brian Kelly's offense.