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Special teams duties are (almost) set

Aug 23, 2013, 1:00 PM EDT

Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk AP

Talk to enough Notre Dame fans and eventually the Irish’s mediocre punt return game with come up. Perhaps I’m mixing this old adage up a bit, but it goes something like, “Run the table with an undefeated regular season and finish 120th in punt returns and nobody remembers you went undefeated.”

So maybe that’s not quite right. But even Brian Kelly was listening this offseason. This spring, he talked about adding starting personnel to his special teams units, citing Alabama’s usage of starters in just about every segment of special teams, helping the Crimson Tide find another (negligible in this case) advantage during the BCS National Championship game. Kelly also had his staff spend time with New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick this offseason, with the Hall of Fame coach exchanging a few tips on how to improve the return and coverage units for the upcoming season.

Yesterday, Kelly discussed the plans for the special teams, and as promised he’s holding true to his word about starters anchoring the units. Running back George Atkinson will be the deep man on kick off returns, even as the No. 1 running back on the depth chart heading into Temple. And wide receiver TJ Jones, the team’s No. 1 wide receiver, will add punt returner to his resume, with the senior all but forcing Kelly to give him the job.

“He wants to return punts,” Kelly said yesterday. “It’s important to him. He’s got the skill for it as well. Obviously, it’s going to build his resume. That’s fine with me. But he’s got that passion for wanting to do it. He’s immediately impacted the punt return team.”

Finishing 120th in the country in any category usually speaks to a fundamental flaw of the team. But Kelly talked a little bit about why the return game was so mediocre, acknowledging that 42 percent of the time, the team conceded a fair catch by going into “punt safe,” formation. That won’t likely be the case this season, with the defense (and offense) different beasts.

We saw what enhancing the personnel does to even the Irish’s punt return game when Michael Floyd returned a punt 41 yards in the Champs Sports Bowl, netting three more yards than the team had done all year up until that point.

Where things are still a bit interesting is in the kicking and punting game. Kelly announced that Kyle Brindza will again handle kickoffs and will get the first shot at the punting job in front of Wake Forest transfer Alex Wulfeck. While Brindza was steady in the clutch but far from spectacular last season as a place kicker, fifth-year senior Nick Tausch will get the first shot to kick field goals against Temple.

“Kyle’s been a bit distracted, because we’ve asked him to put all this time and energy in punting,” Kelly explained. “So what we’re going to do is going into the first game, I’m going to give Nick an opportunity to kick.

“Kyle’s going to kick off, because he’s won that clearly. He’s going to punt, and we’re going to use the Temple game to get all three of them some action. And then we’ll make a decision in game two as to where we are.”

That sounds an awful lot like a head coach that feels mighty confident about the season opening game against Temple, but acknowledges that he needs to have his personnel locked up by the team’s visit to Ann Arbor, one of the great litmus tests on the season.

There’s an awful lot of stress on a specialists that needs to handle three duties and Brindza could very well end up being the team’s kickoff man, place kicker and punter. And while a few heads were scratched when the Irish didn’t pursue a punter in the last recruiting cycle, Kelly thinks the sky is the limit for Brindza.

“I really think he can be an All American punter,” Kelly said. “He may not be there yet, and we’re going to have some growing pains there. But we have a guy in Wulfeck that can get us out of some jams. He’s really consistent.”

If there was one scary segment of the spring game, it was the Irish’s mediocre punting. While Ben Turk was nobody’s All-American, he had a somewhat tolerable level of consistency. One place Brindza seems very strong is between the ears, and if he’s able to work through some of the rough spots early in the season, the Irish could have a weapon in every segment of their special teams.

  1. 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 23, 2013 at 1:11 PM

    returning kick-offs is going to be a good thing for GAIII’s mindset running the football, and vice versa. by now, i’m sure he’s so sick of coaches telling him to be a north to south runner, to hit the holes and finish runs that i wouldn’t be surprised to see him go through the first 3 games without a stutter step. on another site they broke it down how when he initiates contact going near full speed, the outcome is sooooo much better than when he stutters and tries the shove-by technique.

    i am always one to let my optimism get the better of me, but i’ll stick with it and predict GAIII takes one to the house on a kick off against temple.

    • domerboyirish - Aug 23, 2013 at 2:34 PM

      If all goes well he should only get once chance.

      • 4horsemenrideagain - Aug 23, 2013 at 2:59 PM

        well said. i never thought of it like that. he better seize the day then.

  2. tburke9601 - Aug 23, 2013 at 1:19 PM

    Anyone see the new practice video on Another practice video, another highlight catch by # 88. I cant wait to see the kid on the field next week!

    • 25kgold - Aug 23, 2013 at 1:28 PM

      Another ND practice video???!!!! ***Scream**** (guy from those Dish “The Hopper” commercials)

      • bearcatirishfan - Aug 23, 2013 at 2:32 PM

        I don’t know why but I love that commercial. As of 88 I think und is making a point to end every video on a Robinson catch. Next will come the Robinson for president t-shirts.

    • dillonbigred - Aug 23, 2013 at 2:21 PM

      I was excited about the sharp downfield throw to TJ, then I saw it was thrown by by 12 and not 11. I hope the tight ends, Corey, and the other receivers can go up and get the 50/50 balls we will be seeing.

  3. 25kgold - Aug 23, 2013 at 1:42 PM

    If this doesn’t make your heart skip and an eye water up even just a little, you’re not ready for the ’13 season!

    • tburke9601 - Aug 23, 2013 at 2:40 PM

      Nice! Didn’t see that one earlier. I think great choices all around for the captains. I saw earlier someone ask about why not Louis Nix. Maybe someone else can find it, but i swear I saw video where he said something like I am not a captain, and dont want to be one. He is a great player, he just doesn’t see himself as a leader. Got to respect him for that.

    • tedlinko - Aug 23, 2013 at 7:48 PM

      I am so freaking ready. Geez. Do we really still have another week before we kick this thing off?

  4. gtizzo - Aug 23, 2013 at 5:43 PM

    I only bring up special teams play when…well…that is right never. I don’t care how many guys call fair catches as long as we don’t give up touchdowns. No kicks or punts returned for TD’s and ND makes field goals and extra points and I’m happy. Work on red zone offense!!!

    • ndadvocate - Aug 24, 2013 at 10:24 AM

      I completely agree. We dont need a dominate special teams just a consistent one. Make our field goals and were set!

  5. irishpuma - Aug 24, 2013 at 2:25 AM

    Keith great article and hilarious opener!

    Can you tell me didn’t we get a preferred walk on punter who was going Ivy League? If so how does he look?

    • squash2013 - Aug 25, 2013 at 11:28 PM

      Antognoli is the name of the kid that was going to Harvard. He had minor injury the first couple of weeks of camp but is supposedly booming it now. As a freshman I guess he will have to be more consistent and wait his turn behind Brindza and Wulfeck…I have a connection on the coaching staff…also heard Tausch is doing well..

      • irishpuma - Aug 26, 2013 at 2:01 PM

        Thanks Squasf! Can i get a MZ update please!

  6. upthera44 - Aug 24, 2013 at 10:07 AM

    Brindza was not a perfect placekicker, but he made a lot of really clutch field goals. I don’t think he is a player who buckles under pressure (maybe he botches field goals for other reasons, poor concentration or form sometimes). So I trust him and hope he stays kicking field goals.

  7. ndfightingirishfan - Aug 24, 2013 at 3:25 PM

    Being consistent in punting I would think is key, but he must not get much distance (Wulfeck) But with a strong D if you can net 40-42yds when punting that is acceptable. FG kicking is huge, Irish left points out on the field a lot last year from not punching it in while in the red zone, Brindza was strong so Tausch must be showing something to take on the job this year. I don’t think one guy should be handling all 3 jobs, so hopefully the competition will bring out the best in each. By the time ND goes to Ann Arbor, I think Brindza will be doing FG and KO’s while Wulfeck will punt.

  8. tsombanj - Aug 25, 2013 at 8:35 AM

    The punt return has been terrible. Lets not sugarcoat it. There needs to be drastic improvement.

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