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Depth chart adds to special teams challenges

Oct 23, 2012, 4:29 PM EDT

Atkinson 3

I’m still processing the thirty-plus minutes Brian Kelly dedicated to the big game this Saturday during his weekly press conference, but I’m glad that the Irish special teams came up. As mentioned in the past few days, the Irish special teams have been a big disappointment this year.

With blue-chip freshman Davonte Neal handling punt returns, the Irish have an electric player that can make plays in space if given the chance. With George Atkinson returning kickoffs, Notre Dame has a proven commodity — and a home-run threat — touching the ball multiple times a game as well. Yet there has been absolutely nothing to speak of that’s been close to a positive.

Here’s another quick look at where the Irish stand statistically in the return/coverage units.

Opponent Kickoff Return: 94th.
Kickoff Return: 97th.
Opponent Punt Return: 31st.
Punt Return: 114th.

Outside of punt coverage, this is down-right miserable. So bad, that Brian Kelly interrupted the question and preemptively gave the unit a sarcastic A+ grade.

But after making a joke, Kelly delved a little bit deeper into why the unit is such a mess right now. I’ll include his entire evaluation of the units before going back over some interesting parts.

“Obviously, we missed some field goals, and we’re not pleased with that, but we’ve been pretty good kicking the football.  We haven’t been the best in the country.  But it’s not taking away from winning.

“As it relates to punt return, we’re fielding the ball much better than we did last year.  We need to go north and south.  We’re not pleased with our kickoff return game.  We think we’ve got some players in there that have to step their play up.  And we’re really thin on punt return. When we lost (Lo) Wood and we lost Jamoris Slaughter and had to pencil in players full‑time on the defensive side of the ball, we lost some really good cover guys.  We’re really thin there.  And we’re not going to be able to answer it until we get some reinforcement.  This recruiting class should help us next year where we have depth in personnel.

“We’re still one click behind in special teams with the depth of the personnel that we need.  And that’s just the fact.  We’re playing some young guys there that have to get better.  But I like where we’re going to go.  I think our punt return is going to be really good.  I think we’re going to have some guys that we’ll be able to get on that team.

“But we are who we are right now.  We’re clearly disappointed we have to do a better job.  We have to give George Atkinson more room.  We’ve gotta do a better job.  And we can.  We just have to be better at that area right now.”

Even while missing two of three field goals against BYU, Kyle Brindza is 11 of 15 on the season, and perfect on his extra point attempts. Brindza missed an attempt from inside 30 yards against the Cougars, and another from 40 yards on the first series of the game. His misses for the season are sort of a mixed bag. His miss against Miami before the half was also an easy kick that just sailed wide. While he hasn’t been asked to try a kick from 50 yards or more, that seems more a product of situation, not a fear of letting Brindza let it loose.

The punt return game, an improvement over last year while still being ranked 114th in the country tells you all you need to know about this unit. But Kelly’s explanation, particularly about the loss of Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter makes some sense as well. Blocking in space is one of the harder jobs in college football, and the use of the spread punt has forced one-on-one match-ups for blockers in the punt return game.

When you look at the youth on this team in the secondary, where Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks are coaching a troop of young, inexperienced freshmen, you start to understand that the Irish are very limited with veteran depth. They have either starters — guys like Zeke Motta and Bennett Jackson — or unproven, untested guys like Nicky Baratti, who are learning on the fly. You’ve got to think the loss of Austin Collinsworth was also a killer.

It’s interesting that Kelly was able to use scheme and extremely talented guys like Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt to shore up the defense. But in special teams, a unit where journeymen like Chris Salvi and Steve Filer are your aces, that lack of functional veteran depth just doesn’t exist on this roster.

Lastly, Kelly seemingly acknowledges that the Irish need to do a better job giving Atkinson return opportunities. Whether he’s been stifled because of the change in kickoffs, or the blocking just hasn’t been there, you’ve got to think it’s only a matter of time before Atkinson sees a crease and makes an explosive play.



  1. 808raiderinparadise - Oct 23, 2012 at 4:36 PM

    Would be nice to see GA III take one back against OK. Sometimes when your blocking is poor the pursuit overcommits and all you have to do is make 1 guy miss plus .5 guy in the kicker.

    • 808raiderinparadise - Oct 23, 2012 at 4:38 PM

      Either way ND needs these kind of plays to put up points.

    • 808raiderinparadise - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:17 PM

      Just watched OK vs Kstate game. Landry lets the ball go, K state was rushing 4 out of 3-4 alligments and was getting there fast, he is not a good QB under pressure, actually he is pretty awful with pressure.

      Last time I check Kstate didn’t have Tuitt, Irish chocolate, KLM, sheldon day, and company on their d-line. This is a very favorable matchup

    • 808raiderinparadise - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:17 PM

      Just watched OK vs Kstate game. Landry lets the ball go, K state was rushing 4 out of 3-4 alligments and was getting there fast, he is not a good QB under pressure, actually he is pretty awful with pressure.

      Last time I check Kstate didn’t have Tuitt, Irish chocolate, KLM, sheldon day, and company on their d-line. This is a very favorable matchup

      • jimbasil - Oct 23, 2012 at 8:38 PM

        you may want to look at the TX v OK game. TX, early on, got to Jones quickly, but Jones has picked up his pace and seems to know his offense much better than the KSt game. It looked as though OK got sandbagged by KSt. They were not read for what KSt was going to do. But yes, Jones hasn’t been great under pressure.

        He knows it’s coming with ND and Stoops will be ready (maybe).

        • 808raiderinparadise - Oct 24, 2012 at 1:53 AM

          ND’s defense is a lot better than KState or Tex wouldn’t you say? Every guy that starts with his hand down on the line of scrimmage going NFL. Not to mention Teo and Bennett and I would say that ND gets pressure with 4… irish chocolate is quietly the best DT/NT in the country in my opinion. Personally, bring it on OK.

      • tburke9601 - Oct 24, 2012 at 9:13 AM

        jimbasil rhymes with embicil, you do realize the Tx defense is downright horrible don’t you? My 3 yr old could make the tackles that TX missed in that game. The entire BIG 12 is all about offense and no defense. The only team that Ok faced with any type of Defense was Kstate and look what happened. Not saying ND wins but game will be close. That is a guarantee.

  2. dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 4:46 PM

    Dude pretty simple. Whoever is in charge of special teams needs to get fired, I don’t care if its saint focking Stephen. We need guys block somebody. If you’re going for a block, go for a block! If not, put the focking return on and block somebody, would ya? Every time Neal touches the ball, he’s got 3 focking guys ready to French kiss his a$$!

    1. Fire whoever is in charge of retard teams.

  3. dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:07 PM

    Special teams is pretty simple guys. So simple that my high school football coach used to call it retarded teams. You get one guy on your team to block one guy on another team. Drive his a$$ to the ground, get up then go block another guy, drive his a$$ to the ground.

  4. bernhtp - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:20 PM

    Rule changes have made kickoffs and punt returns less important. You can move significantly up in the relative rankings and not make a material difference to your game outcome. I think this is why Kelly isn’t investing a lot of coaching/team time on special teams, especially now that the season is well underway. There are more important places to invest that time and effort.

    With that said, I think we were all expecting ND to make some significant progress over the summer in last years abysmal punt return stats. Though we put the electric Davonte Neal there, nothing else changed and thus the results are approximately the same. It needs fixing, but Kelly is basically saying not now.

    • dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:34 PM

      Berno, with that crappy offense of ours, if bk isn’t investing a lot of time, he’s a moron. That’s free money. It’s not that hard to move up from where our retard teams have been. Doesn’t make sense to me but I’m a head coach of 8-0 team. Sounds like he needs to listen to what he preaches and don’t let the 8-0 noise get to his head. We could be 8-3 in a heartbeat.

      • bernhtp - Oct 23, 2012 at 6:47 PM

        Hey, Kelly needs to spend time teaching Golson not to run around the endzone holding the football with one hand by its tip, and yet more time showing Daniels how not to catch the ball with his face – the facemask keeps it from being successful caught in the teeth. There are only so many hours in a day and obviously punt return is getting the short end.

        They can’t hire another coach for ST. They are at their NCAA limit. They can reallocate existing coaches and/or replace one, but cannot get another.

  5. 04domergrad - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:23 PM

    Our punt return strategy baffles me. To me, you play for one of two things – a block or a return. But we seem to play for neither. If you watch closely (and I have been), our return team goes at about 75% speed on the snap to break past the initial line of blockers, and then they let up before they get to the personal protectors. Clearly they aren’t going for the block, and this allows the punt team’s down linemen to get a free release, leading to nearly every punt return ending in a fair catch. It looks like guarding against the fake is our first and only priority. I really don’t get it. Field position was huge against BYU, and the more we can keep our defense in positions of aggression, the better we’re off – exponentially.

    • dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:37 PM

      You and me both. On one particular return, I saw about 6 nd players half a$$ rush, none of em got near the punter but they were past the line of scrimmage, blocking nobody just jogging around. They weren’t blocking sht. Not to mention on the other end, Neal had to fair catch another one w 5 buy players breathing down his throat. Good job coach, go have anger focking whopper, bk!

    • simmel65 - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:39 PM

      I completely agree. During one punt return, we didn’t block one BYU player. The long snapper(!) actually was on top of Neal who had to call fair catch.

      It just seems like a waste of Neal’s abilities. I get that they don’t have the best special teams players, but we might as well just keep 3 guys all the way back and then try to block for Neal so he can get at least a yard or two!

      And I don’t believe they are worried about a fake, because the speed we are playing (75% is accurate), we are going to get burned on something like that as well.

      Just really baffling how we can be so aggressive on defense and offense, yet not on special teams…

      I love BK and how this year is playing out, but this is one aspect of the team really surprises me…

      • dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:46 PM

        I’d like to also see 19 during the game. Reverse? Fake reverse? Aw what da hell, throw him the got dam ball you say? C’mon coach, this kids supposed to be special, let us see it. What da hell is he doing rotting away on the bench. Are you waiting for him to transfer to asu?

    • nateprez4irish - Oct 23, 2012 at 6:16 PM

      1000% agree. Was just talking today how the kicking game may be the difference Saturday…While I fully respect both defenses, giving OK or ND a short field will lead to points. Brindza’s misses, Turk’s anemic leg and lack of directional punting, and our lack luster return game makes me want to give the edge to OK. Don’t get me wrong, we said the same thing about the secondary and they haven’t lost a game for us but I think winning field position allows the ND defense to set up Golson and the run game to score points but giving OK a short field and making our offense drive 75+ yards to score ends in an OK win.

      Here’s hoping for 8-0!

  6. dudeacow - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:32 PM

    It seems as if BK is very cautionary, then allows a setup for a return, but then a player makes a tiny mistake, so then BK is back to being very cautionary. JUST LET NEAL RETURN THE BALL! I am so sick of us not blocking anybody and stopping just short of the protectors of the punter (or whatever they’re called). I don’t expect the special team to get better next year as they were like this last year and the year before.

    • dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:42 PM

      Dude, I thought for long time it was returner, I.e. goodwoman but I blame the coaching. Who da hell is coaching retard team? A retard perhaps? We are ND. Go spend some money and hire a professional, would ya? Not one of those cheap a$$ ones from down town Chinatown either!

    • nateprez4irish - Oct 23, 2012 at 6:18 PM

      We all think that way until someone muffs a punt on the 10 yard line like the 6 we had last season. Agree on the blocking though. Rush or set up a return, not wander around!

  7. dickasman - Oct 23, 2012 at 5:51 PM

    Hey guys, I just looked up our record and we are 8-0 and undefeated. Shart on me.

  8. italianirish - Oct 23, 2012 at 6:55 PM

    This has bothered me for a while, and it’s not specific to Notre Dame. Why do 100% of college teams have 3 guys back to protect the punter and 0% of NFL teams do this? My best guess has always been that they have different rules about who’s allowed to move down field when or how many need to be so far off the line.

    Anyone have any actual insight into this?

  9. rjamo123 - Oct 23, 2012 at 7:32 PM

    I think it is a matter of time before we break one on a return. Especially Neal back on punts he really looks like he has “it” back there and I guarantee that he returns one back at some point this year.

  10. ndfaithful - Oct 23, 2012 at 8:19 PM

    BK’s press conference was pretty interesting today. First of all, it’s pretty obvious that he has a strategic plan and a tactical plan. He mentions the long term plan of recruiting and projecting guys and filling needs. Then quickly switches gears to eradicating the things that make you lose.

    Whether you think him a genius or a clown, you have to give him some credit being a professional about coaching. It wasn’t long ago we were going thru coaches that lied on their resume, and then coaches that were full of hot gas talking about being ‘nasty’ and ‘definite schematic advantages’. All the while we seemed to skip entire position groups with our recruiting efforts.

    There was also a sly smile when the questions turned to the exploits and advantages in Oklahoma’s accomplished quarterback. I think you’ll see some pressure on him and he’ll look a lot more average once he’s getting knocked around a bit.

    It was also really good to hear him praise the seniors after hearing things about his guys and the rest of the guys last year. I think he’s got a plan and believes they’ll win in Norman.

    I like it when we’re the underdog. I like their chances Saturday.


  11. irishdodger - Oct 23, 2012 at 9:30 PM

    Who needs probation to limit the number of available bodies, when u have an inordinate amount of season-ending injuries? I know all teams are affected by injuries, but ND seems to be ahead of the curve. He’ll, SC is hoping for a kid to pop an Achilles or shred an ACL, so they can take the gray shirt off of their 5-star in waiting.

  12. frankb51 - Oct 23, 2012 at 10:28 PM

    nice to see my fellow posters come around….finally! I have been screaming for Neal to get touches for the last four weeks! Even KA has finally awoken from his coma and has joined the push.

    guaranteed guys like neal, chris brown, et al will start looking elsewhere if they cannot get playing time. interesting about chris brown open twice beat secondary badly and EG overthrew him both times.

    interesting how winning touchdown almost did not occur v. BYU, did you see Kelly scream “George”, they called his number and he was on the bench; ran out at the last second. BTW, I believe Neal has been in motion and taken that “Atkinson” hand off earlier in the year. Please correct me if I am wrong.

  13. alsatiannd - Oct 24, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    I still don’t see how this is hard. You have 10 guys outside of the punt returner. They have 7 guys outside of the punter and 3 upbacks. Don’t rush the punt. 10 v 7 blocking as soon as the ball is snapped. Jam everyone. You can double team 3 of them or sprint 3 back to pick up blocks around the receiver.

    I don’t care what you do, but please no more tea parties and patty-cake with the upbacks.

  14. tsombanj - Oct 24, 2012 at 8:03 AM

    I’m also glad this finally came up. Punt return on this unit is awful. The coaches are not putting them in a position to return a kick. Someone please explain the logic in having the coverage unit not rush the punter and not block opposing players coming off the line of scrimmage on coverage. Opponents get free release and are in Neal’s face in under 5 seconds. Why aren’t they setting up for a return…ever? This one is on the coaches!

  15. nd78gracehall - Oct 24, 2012 at 11:47 AM

    Did anyone else wonder why with 23 second left in the second half and BYU on their 15 last week we didn’t put everyone on the line and go for the block? I mean put in all the speedsters. What is the worst that could happen? A roughing call and they get it back on the 30 with 15 seconds left? I’ve never seen a Kelly team go for the block. Holtz used to do it all of the time.

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