Aside from individual post-season awards such as the Heisman Trophy, there is one accolade that all college football players are striving for on an annual basis.
Earning the title of All-American is an honor bestowed upon only the most talented players the college football landscape has to offer. And with Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly having reeled in a wealth of talent in his three seasons on the job, the Irish now boast a slew of potential candidates for the honor.
Beginning the list is a player who has flown under the radar for the duration of his career, despite having been selected as a team captain last season.
Zack Martin, LT
A three-year starter for the Irish, Martin has been the one constant of an offensive line that has been directed by two different coaches—Ed Warriner and Harry Hiestand—during the Kelly era.
The older brother of Irish right guard Nick Martin, the elder Martin has been the catalyst of three straight Notre Dame lines that have been excellent protectors of the quarterback. As with any right-handed quarterback, the main responsibility of the left tackle is to protect that quarterback's blindside, and Martin has accomplished that feat remarkably well for Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees and Everett Golson.
In fact, Martin was the leader of the Irish's 2012 line that allowed just 1.38 sacks per game, which tied for 28th nationally in the statistic.
The Indianapolis native's NFL future is bright, as NFLDraftScout.com ranks the 6'4", 305-pound Martin as the fourth-best offensive tackle in the 2014 class.
The only knock against Martin is his size, as the prototypical NFL left tackle usually ranges between 6'6" and 6'7".
Louis Nix III, NG
As I wrote on Thursday, the centerpiece of any elite 3-4 defensive scheme is a dominant nose guard.
Nix is the definition of a dominant nose guard, which makes the Irish's 3-4 scheme one of the most effective in college football.
The Jacksonville, Fla., native arrived at Notre Dame in fall 2010 having packed more than 360 pounds on to his 6'3" frame, deeming Nix an overweight player only capable of playing 15-20 reps on any given Saturday. He even flirted with the notion of transferring prior to the 2011 season, though those rumors were quashed quickly.
Two seasons later, Nix is down to a manageable 326 pounds, which has allowed him to become an every-down player for the Irish. That transformation was a significant factor into his development as a legitimate first-round NFL Draft prospect.
But in the one season that Nix has remaining at Notre Dame, he'll be a game-changer for an Irish defense that will be back among the country's most fierce groups.
(Extra note: Nix was voted to CBSSports.com's All-American third team in 2012.)
Stephon Tuitt, DE
If there's one player on the Irish roster who is a lock to be an All-American, it's Stephon Tuitt.
The Monroe, Ga., native was voted as a second-team All-American by the Associated Press in 2012, making his transition to the first team theoretically a guarantee.
Tuitt's story is a touching one, as the 6'6", 303-pound defensive end would make the 12-mile journey from his home to Monroe Area High School on foot to attend weight-lifting sessions and practices. Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples wrote a beautiful piece on the more intimate details of that struggle in January.
Tuitt won't ever have to worry about making a similar trek on foot, as hefty NFL paychecks are waiting in his future.
Because the money is most certainly there, an intriguing storyline to keep an eye on during the 2013 season will be whether Tuitt will leave Notre Dame a season early to enter the 2014 NFL Draft, in which WalterFootball.com projects him as the 13th overall selection to the Minnesota Vikings.
Tuitt's mother, Tamara Bartlett, has made it clear that her son's education is the first priority before the NFL, though, per the Staples story.
With the inclusion of two defensive linemen in this piece, it's evident that Kelly and defensive coordinator Bob Diaco have delivered on their shared intention to build the team from the defense outward.
Nix and Tuitt will likely be first-round selections in the 2014 NFL Draft—pending Tuitt's decision to leave early—and would become the best tandem of defensive linemen to come out of Notre Dame since Ross Browner and Willie Fry in the late 70s.
The All-American labels will only be an added bonus for these two defensive linemen, as well as for Zack Martin.
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