If Notre Dame’s under-performing special teams units make a vast improvement in 2013, Irish fans have an odd person to thank: Alabama coach Nick Saban. After all, it was Saban who laid the blue print for Kelly’s spring overhaul of his special teams, which has underwhelmed the past few seasons, especially in the return games.
“Here’s what I know. Standing on the sideline for the national championship game, we’re ready to kick off and Alabama has eleven starters on kickoff return,” Kelly said. “Kickoff return. Nobody wants to be on kickoff return.
“So the emphasis for us in this spring is to really embrace their roles. I want starters to be part of our special teams units. The spring really is for us to integrate front-line guys in ST. And that kind of decision has to come from me. So I ‘ve made that, and we’re going about it in the spring to really put our best players on ST.”
After swapping out assistant coach Mike Elston with Scott Booker, it seems Kelly has hit on something he believes to be at the core of the issue: personnel. And after developing a roster that he feels is deeper than any he’s coached, Saban’s willingness to put starters on coverage and return units, even if there is added risk of injury, has clearly influenced the way the Irish will look at their all important third unit.
“Every single position is going to have the best players that we can get out there. We’re going to make them compete for those positions,” Kelly said. “Now that we’ve been able to build some depth on both sides of the ball, I believe we can move more toward getting our front line guys out there.”
If you’re looking for fairly radical changes in season four, this is it. After basically settled for net neutral in the punt return game with John Goodman basically fair catching everything in 2011 and getting next to nothing out of freshman Davonte Neal last season, Kelly’s going to utilize the very best players he has on the roster.
That likely means George Atkinson continues as a kickoff returner. And we’ll likely see a guy like Amir Carlisle compete for a spot in the punt return game, pushing Neal, who is likely the front-runner at the slot receiver position.
Would Kelly have made this choice if Michael Floyd was on his 2013 roster? Who knows. But the fact that the Irish are making a concerted effort to have their roster’s top players onto the four different units means that the head coach is convinced there’s value to be added in special teams, something that wasn’t all that apparent the past few seasons.
“We’re not afraid to put a number of different guys out there if they need a blow on defense or they need a blow on offense,” Kelly continued. “As I told them, they’re not going to take a blow on special teams. If you want to sit out a series or a few plays on defense, that’s up to you. But we’re going to get our personnel on the field as well in special teams.”