Being ranked 101st in the nation is never a good thing. But that’s what the Irish got out of their punt return unit, the weakest special teams grouping under Mike Elston’s watch. Notre Dame failed to create anything in the return game, with Armando Allen’s 38-yard return in the season opener against Purdue the only big play on the season.
While most squared the blame on John Goodman’s shoulders, the truth of the matter was that the return game struggled for a variety of reasons. An early injury to Armando Allen took the Irish’s most dangerous return man out of the mix. A lack of depth and experience made it difficult for the Irish to get solid blocking for the returner, specifically finding guys that could stop opposing gunners. Finally, Elston and head coach Brian Kelly didn’t feel all that good taking risks in the return game with the personnel they had available.
That won’t be the case in 2011.
“We think we’ve got the kind of personnel that will allow us to be a lot more aggressive in special teams,” Kelly said before kicking off the season.
After Saturday’s practice, Kelly opened up a bit more on a few of the options that are in play.
“We’ve got four or five guys in mind,” Kelly said. “We were an up and down special teams unit. Poor sometimes, excellent in others. We have to be much better and our return men have to be part of that.”
When pressed for some options, Kelly threw out some names you’d expect while also bouncing around a few wildcards.
“Theo Riddick has got to be back there, no question,” Kelly continued. “Goodman can catch the ball back there, Harrison can catch the ball back there, Robby Toma. Those are the sure-hand guys. Now the guys who have a chance to make something happen. I’ll put Theo Riddick out there for one. I’m going to take a look and see if there’s another wide receiver. Maybe Michael Floyd can do something back there. A lot of different options when it comes to Cam McDaniel. He was a punt returner in high school and was very dynamic. We’re going to look at George Atkinson, we’re going to look at Everett Golson. We’re going to look at young guys that can be exciting with the football in their hands and see how that pans out.”
Here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish options at punt returner, and my hunch on whether or not it’ll happen.
John Goodman: For better or worse, Irish fans and Brian Kelly already know what they’ll get out of Goodman, and it likely entails a lot of fair catches and retaining possession. He’s far from the daring choice, but he’s safe — and likely a better returner than his numbers (1.3 yards per return on 13 punts) showed.
Theo Riddick: The logical choice and a prototypical punt returner. Whether it was already having a full plate with the move to wide receiver, or a lack of familiarity returning punts, Riddick probably was the next best option after Armando Allen last season.
Robby Toma: Consider him the compromise option, and he’ll at least be able to remind Irish fans of Joey Getherall, another diminutive and speedy wideout turned return man. Getting Toma some return touches might be a good way to give the team’s leading yards-per-catch wideout more opportunities.
Cam McDaniel: We’ll likely know pretty quickly if McDaniel is ready for the speed and intensity of college football. He played amongst the best high school football competition in the country and he was an elite return man then. If BK and Elston decide to go young, he’s my guess.
George Atkinson: Another frosh, Atkinson also has elite speed, something that sets him apart from the rest of this group. (Atkinson ran a 10.6 100m in high school.) He’s a versatile athlete that played a ton of different positions in high school, and his speed might make him a dangerous return option.
Michael Floyd: At best, Kelly could have Floyd channeling his inner-Tim Brown. At worst, it’s a dangerous decision to put the lifeblood of the offense in the return game, where crazy things have been known to happen. Floyd doesn’t fit the mold for a WR/punt returner type, but I certainly won’t be the one doubting his abilities.
Harrison Smith: There’s no questioning Smith’s athleticism, but the decision to put the defense’s centerfielder on the field in the return game is a risky choice.
Everett Golson: A complete wildcard. The freshman quarterback struggled to hold onto the football in the spring game. Putting him out there as a punt returner is an even bigger risk, though it speaks to Kelly’s belief in Golson’s athleticism that he’s even lobbing his name out there.
KA’s odds for opening day returner:
Theo Riddick — 5:2
John Goodman — 4:1
Robby Toma — 6:1
Cam McDaniel — 8:1
George Atkinson — 10:1
Michael Floyd — 15:1
Harrison Smith — 25:1
Everett Golson — 30:1
Stephon Tuitt — 100:1