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Kelly committed to fixing special teams

Mar 4, 2014, 10:00 AM EDT

Kyle Brindza, Ben Turk AP

There was no question that by the end of the 2013 season, Notre Dame’s coverage teams were a mess. The product of a ravaged depth chart, the Irish were miserable covering kicks, likely a deadly mix of mismatched personnel and some questionable schemes. 

After a commitment to putting better players on the special teams units didn’t necessarily pay off in 2013, the Irish went back to the drawing board this offseason. And after hearing Kelly talk in his introductory comments on Friday, they might have solved some problem.

In a rather candid moment, Kelly talked about the process of getting help for his not-so-special teams. That included touring programs at both the collegiate and professional level and getting some critiques. 

I won’t tell you where we went, but we went with some NFL and some college programs and we took our film, with our hat in our hand and said, what are we doing here, what are we missing,” Kelly said. “And primarily, it wasn’t scheme as much as it was some coaching points and moving some personnel around, some speed players versus some power players.  And you know, I think we’ve got a better feel for the positioning of the players in the right positions.

“So we’re going to make some adjustments to some of the looks that we have in our punt return.  We think we’ve answered some questions in our coverage teams, and like I said, you know, it’s unacceptable to be where we are.  We went out with that sense of being very open to all things as it relates to special teams, because we’ve got to get better there.  And I think we picked up some things that I think can really help us.”

Just how bad the Irish were on kickoff returns is fairly amazing. The Irish were in the bottom 10 of the country in the number of 30+, 40+, and 50+ yard returns allowed, clearly signaling something was wrong with a unit that once was really stingy at the beginning of Kelly’s tenure. 

With Kyle Brindza returning, the Irish have one of the country’s best kickers and should be able to produce more touchbacks. But even if they don’t give an automatic start at the 25, they’ve got to get better in this facet of the game. Whether that means putting more speed out there, finding better gunners, or just scraping the strategy and finding a new one, all ideas are clearly on the table. 

It’s also clear that it’ll be a collaborative process fixing the units. While Scott Booker is the coordinator of those units, Kelly talked about having an all hands on deck approach. 

You’ve got to have one voice but it’s going to have hands in it from all the coaches including myself,” Kelly said. “Everybody will be involved.  I was involved in the off‑season in terms of reaching out to coaches and talking to coaches… That’s the best way to do it from my perspective, you know, when you’re talking about nine coaches.”

  1. cpfirish - Mar 4, 2014 at 10:21 AM

    Amir would do a great job back deep! Yes we Are going to have a punt return and a kick return this year! And Brinza is money! Go Irish!

  2. immaculatereception - Mar 4, 2014 at 1:23 PM

    25+ years of coaching and you don’t know how to run special teams? Weis had the same issues. What’s wrong with this picture?

    • NotreDan - Mar 4, 2014 at 3:02 PM

      I actually take BK’s comments in the vein he probably meant them, which is his attitude is that he is always learning and open to the fact that he doesn’t know everything. This is probably the same culture he tries to instill in his players and his staff.

      I’d much rather have that attitude in a coach and leader.

    • mediocrebob - Mar 4, 2014 at 3:56 PM

      Yeah! Fire Kelly! Terrible special teams!

    • gtizzo - Mar 4, 2014 at 5:12 PM

      ND special teams hasn’t been special in a long time…long before Kelly or Weis. I give Kelly at lot of credit for being candid when a mistake needs fixing. He has had to do a lot of things different from the way he would like to do them. Admitting there is a problem, then going out and asking how to fix it shows me he is serious. Keep in mind Alabama was number one all last season and lost on a special teams play to Auburn…even Saban doesn’t have all the answers. Kelly will work it out.

      • ndclashmoremike - Mar 5, 2014 at 8:57 AM

        Despite all his other problems, Notre Dame had one of the country’s best kick return coverage teams under Weis when walk-on Mike Anello was the gunner. Maybe we need more walk-ons.

      • bernhtp - Mar 5, 2014 at 9:56 AM

        Weis had some good special teams. As stated above, Anello was a great kick coverage guy. Golden Tate was a great returner. Zibby was a very good punt returner. This is one area (along with QB) where Weis’ teams were clearly better.

      • irish4006 - Mar 6, 2014 at 6:09 PM

        ndclashmoremikeanello?

  3. shaunodame - Mar 4, 2014 at 5:33 PM

    I really feel like an improved Punt Return unit can go a LOOOONG way in changing the field position battle in ND’s favor a lot this coming year.

    • mtflsmitty - Mar 4, 2014 at 11:48 PM

      Totally agree, Shauno! Other thoughts for improved performance…
      – Fewer fumbles will go a LOOOONG way to improve our fumbles lost stats
      – More yards on 1st and 2nd downs will go a LOOOONG way to improving 3rd down conversions
      – I really feel like more points will go a LOOOONG way to helping us win more games

      • shaunodame - Mar 5, 2014 at 6:29 AM

        Smitty, you shouldn’t write such a LOOOONG response and say so little. Your better than that, by a LOOOONG shot.

      • mtflsmitty - Mar 5, 2014 at 11:28 PM

        Public sentiment seems to agree with you. I just thought the comment was a bit obvious and was having a little fun with you.

    • 04domergrad - Mar 5, 2014 at 2:31 AM

      I’ve been saying this since Kelly’s first year and it still drive me nuts. A punt return strategy should be to either a) block the punt or b) set up a return. We seem to do neither. The guys on the line seem to go 50% speed after the punt and let the other team release to get downfield without jamming them. And the gunners get off the line way too easily – it doesn’t matter if the Rocket is returning punts because he has to fair catch with two defenders in his face every time.

      At least a clear strategy to prevent fakes would be something, but it’s not even that.

      To quote the great Harry Doyle from Major League “obviously he’s thinking… I don’t know WHAT the hell he’s thinking.”

      • mediocrebob - Mar 5, 2014 at 5:31 AM

        I actually believe they are in safe return more often than not which is a strategy to prevent fakes. If that weren’t the case, I think teams would take advantage and attempt fake punts which hasn’t happened often, if at all, under BK.

      • immaculatereception - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:21 PM

        I always felt the same. They weren’t playing the return or for a block. Instead, they’re defending against the fake? If I’m playing the odds, it’s not going to lead me to play the fake on nearly every punt.

        We need another Zibby AND the coverage to go along with him. Hopefully BK gets it fixed.

      • andy44teg - Mar 5, 2014 at 3:20 PM

        Except that one pesky play against MSU…

      • mediocrebob - Mar 5, 2014 at 9:29 PM

        Maybe that scarred BK forever. That damn fake fg.

  4. jerseyshorendfan1 - Mar 4, 2014 at 6:41 PM

    I wonder to what degree the “special” teams play that we’ve seen in the last two years really effected the outcome of the game. Probably more than we know. When you give up long punt and kickoff returns and then, conversely, gain little yardage doing those same things yourself, it could be a larger problem than they care to admit. Well, at least they are committed to fixing those deficiencies. When I read the headline to this article, I could only think well, its about time.

    • goirishgo - Mar 5, 2014 at 8:38 AM

      Great point, Jersey. Bill Parcells is an interesting guy to read/listen to on this topic. He includes punt yards, kickoff yards, and return yards as part of a “total yards gained” calculation. He then lumps punt , kickoff and return yards allowed into a “total yards allowed” number. His rationale is exactly the point you make – total yards gained vs. total yards allowed (including ALL special teams plays) is the best measure of who wins the field position battle. He further maintains that, outside of turnovers, his yards gained vs. allowed formula is the most significant factor in who wins games.

      I think it’s safe to say that return yards gained vs. return yards allowed have negated some huge Irish advantages in yards gained vs. allowed from scrimmage in the last couple of years. I’m guessing the Rutgers game would be a pretty good example.

    • dillonbigred - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:35 PM

      Yes, I have thought the 12-0 2012 regular season was all the more amazing, considering the state of the special teams.
      Also, I accidently reported you. I keep hitting the wrong button.

  5. danirish - Mar 5, 2014 at 8:07 AM

    I miss Tim Brown, Rocket Ismail, Allan Rossum, Tommy Z!

    There seems to be a trend in some college football programs that a special teams coach is not needed, with limited number of coaches, some teams would rather have a “3rd down inside linebacker coach”

    My buddies that graduated with me from Georgia yell and scream at Mark Richt for the same reason – no special teams coach

    Its not just us.

  6. irishdog80 - Mar 5, 2014 at 9:25 AM

    A few months ago, I was listening to an NFL Special Teams Coach talk about his philophies. He noted that on the defensive side of Special Teams you can’t have a bunch of “headhunters” charging down the field at the same time. You need to have a good mix of “headhunters” and stay at home play your lane types of guys on the defensive side of the equation. His comments made a lot of sense to me. ND seems to have given up the big play on Special Teams too many times due to a lack of lane integrity and players overrunning the play and not having good angles to take to the ball carrier. All it takes is one cut…maybe two…and a couple of wisely positioned blockers and huge seams are there for the taking. It will be interesting to see how they correct the issue.

    Maybe we have had too many overly enthusiastic “headhunter” types trying to make an impression on the coaches.

  7. fnc111 - Mar 5, 2014 at 12:34 PM

    Kelly should leave the QB’s alone and be in charge of special teams.

  8. bernhtp - Mar 5, 2014 at 1:04 PM

    Speaking of special teams and leadership, I would be very tempted to take the unconventional route and make Brindza a team captain. Beyond excelling as a specialist (three specialties, actually), the guy is super-competitive and a warrior. He has an amazing work ethic and is very vocal in the locker room. He’s no pansy; I bet he can kick the ass of any other kicker/punter in the NCAA and would love to give it a go.

    http://vimeo.com/88086622

  9. nchdomer - Mar 5, 2014 at 5:35 PM

    The best resource is Lou Holtz, who seems to be available to Kelly with all of the charitable events both participate in at ND. The huge gains given up on kickoffs almost cost the SC game and others. Not sure why it is such a problem area. Hope it gets fixed as it can make a difference between a good season and a great season.

  10. mtflsmitty - Mar 5, 2014 at 11:37 PM

    Some discussion last week re the 2014 defensive front-7. The except below from a recent Eric Hansen article (SB Trib) on a 2015 recruit who participated in Junior Day:

    “Through conversations with the coaching staff, the 6-foot-3, 212-pound prospect learned his projection as an out-side linebacker in a new 4-3 defense.
    Neither Kelly nor VanGorder have publicly committed to running a base 4-3 defense, but recruiting pitches like the one reported by Barajas indicate a likely evolution.”

    Interesting I thought.

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