Notre Dame Football: Biggest X-Factors for Fighting Irish in 2012

Bleacher ReportCorrespondent IMarch 9, 2012

STANFORD, CA - NOVEMBER 26:  Theo Riddick #6 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish in action against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 26, 2011 in Stanford, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The 17-year disappointment called Notre Dame Fighting Irish football will begin their 2012 season on another quest to take the college football world by storm and silence their critics.

The Irish will begin their season against Navy on September 1st in Dublin, Ireland.

What will make this campaign any different than any other in the last 15 years?

Well we know that Tommy Rees will probably be back under center, that Cierre Wood will probably go for another 1,000-yard season and that Manti Te'o will be a force at linebacker during his senior season.

So what little things will make the difference for Notre Dame this fall? Three players that I think will be X-factors in the 2012 season are wide receiver Theo Riddick, running back George Atkinson III and safety Zeke Motta.

Theo Riddick, a rising senior, doesn't have great size at 5'11" and just under 200 pounds. However, he had nine starts in 11 games last year and averaged around 40 yards per game.  His 38 receptions for 436 yards was good for third-best on the Irish. Only the graduating Michael Floyd and tight end Tyler Eifert had more catches and yards.

Riddick is one of the fastest players for Notre Dame and has the ability to stretch the field. In 2011, he pulled in three TD catches, which equaled his total from 2010. With Floyd gone, look for Riddick to get a lot more looks from Rees.

George Atkinson III, a running back from Stockton, California, should continue to have a bigger and bigger impact on the field for Notre Dame. As a freshman in 2011, he served as the team's primary kickoff returner, a role which he should keep for this coming season.

Atkinson returned two of his 35 fielded kicks for touchdowns during last season. As far as running the ball, George only got nine carries for 29 yards, but he did score two rushing touchdowns inside the red zone, suggesting that the Irish want to get him the ball in those kind of situations. Look for him to earn around 10 times as many carries this fall and become a bigger playmaker.

Zeke Motta, a senior safety, will have a huge job this coming fall. As the Irish lose a ton of their secondary—including Harrison Smith, Jamoris Slaughter, Robert Blanton and Gary Gray—they will be looking for leadership from Motta in a big way.

Motta had 40 total tackles, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in 2011, which shows he can step up an be a force on defense. However, what Motta may have to do more than make plays is help this young unit to congeal. That job will be no easy one.

As the Irish prepare for their upcoming season, the presence of Riddick, Atkinson III and Motta will be crucial to the success of the team. These guys are not the stars, but will serve in roles that will matter greatly at Notre Dame.