Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk

Special teams duties are (almost) set


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.

Irish add commitment from CB Donte Vaughn

Donte Vaughn

Notre Dame’s recruiting class grew on Monday. And in adding 6-foot-3 Memphis cornerback Donte Vaughn, it grew considerably.

The Irish added another jumbo-sized skill player in Vaughn, beating out a slew of SEC offers for the intriguing cover man. Vaughn picked Notre Dame over offers from Auburn, LSU, Miami, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Texas A&M among others.

He made the announcement on Monday, his 18th birthday:

It remains to be seen if Vaughn can run like a true cornerback. But his length certainly gives him a skill-set that doesn’t currently exist on the Notre Dame roster.

Interestingly enough, Vaughn’s commitment comes a cycle after Brian VanGorder made news by going after out-of-profile coverman Shaun Crawford, immediately offering the 5-foot-9 cornerback after taking over for Bob Diaco, who passed because of Crawford’s size. An ACL injury cut short Crawford’s freshman season before it got started, but not before Crawford already proved he’ll be a valuable piece of the Irish secondary for years to come.

Vaughn is another freaky athlete in a class that already features British Columbia’s Chase Claypool. With a safety depth chart that’s likely turning over quite a bit in the next two seasons, Vaughn can clearly shift over if that’s needed, though Notre Dame adding length like Vaughn clearly points to some of the shifting trends after Richard Sherman went from an average wide receiver to one of the best cornerbacks in football, and Vaughn will be asked to play on the outside.

Vaughn is the 15th member of Notre Dame’s 2016 signing class. He is the fifth defensive back, joining safeties D.J. Morgan, Jalen Elliott and Spencer Perry along with cornerback Julian Love. The Irish project to take one more.

With Notre Dame expecting another huge recruiting weekend with USC coming to town, it’ll be very interesting to see how the Irish staff close out this recruiting class.




Days before facing Notre Dame, USC coach Steve Sarkisian to take leave of absence


When Notre Dame takes on rival USC on Saturday, they’ll be facing a Trojans team without a head coach. USC athletic director Pat Haden announced today that effective immediately, head coach Steve Sarkisian will be taking an indefinite leave of absence. Offensive coordinator Clay Helton will be interim head coach.

While the details are still coming into focus, multiple reports point to another incident with alcohol. Haden himself said that he made the decision after speaking with Sarkisian.

“I called Steve and talked to him. It was very clear to me that he is not healthy. I asked him to take an indefinite leave of absence,” Haden said, according to multiple Los Angeles media reports.

Sarkisian’s decision-making and alcohol use came into the spotlight this August when the head coach made inappropriate statements at a large booster event. Sarkisian addressed the media after the incident, acknowledged mixing medication with alcohol, and vowed to seek help and not to make the same mistake again.

Today’s incident appears to be a relapse, and one that requires immediate attention. Helton ran the team’s practice today and steps back into an interim head coaching role, a job he handled after the Trojans fired Lane Kiffin and Ed Orgeron left after not being awarded the permanent job.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, I have been in this situation before,” Helton said. “Once again, I’m very fortunate to have a group of first-class kids that are extremely talented and want to do something special here.”

This is the second major sports persona to leave his season to seek treatment in recent weeks. New York Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia left the team to seek treatment for alcohol issues. The Trojans are coming off an upset loss to Washington on Thursday night, losing 17-12 as a 17-point favorite.