Depth chart adds to special teams challenges

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I’m still processing the thirty-plus minutes Brian Kelly dedicated to the big game this Saturday during his weekly press conference, but I’m glad that the Irish special teams came up. As mentioned in the past few days, the Irish special teams have been a big disappointment this year.

With blue-chip freshman Davonte Neal handling punt returns, the Irish have an electric player that can make plays in space if given the chance. With George Atkinson returning kickoffs, Notre Dame has a proven commodity — and a home-run threat — touching the ball multiple times a game as well. Yet there has been absolutely nothing to speak of that’s been close to a positive.

Here’s another quick look at where the Irish stand statistically in the return/coverage units.

Opponent Kickoff Return: 94th.
Kickoff Return: 97th.
Opponent Punt Return: 31st.
Punt Return: 114th.

Outside of punt coverage, this is down-right miserable. So bad, that Brian Kelly interrupted the question and preemptively gave the unit a sarcastic A+ grade.

But after making a joke, Kelly delved a little bit deeper into why the unit is such a mess right now. I’ll include his entire evaluation of the units before going back over some interesting parts.

“Obviously, we missed some field goals, and we’re not pleased with that, but we’ve been pretty good kicking the football.  We haven’t been the best in the country.  But it’s not taking away from winning.

“As it relates to punt return, we’re fielding the ball much better than we did last year.  We need to go north and south.  We’re not pleased with our kickoff return game.  We think we’ve got some players in there that have to step their play up.  And we’re really thin on punt return. When we lost (Lo) Wood and we lost Jamoris Slaughter and had to pencil in players full‑time on the defensive side of the ball, we lost some really good cover guys.  We’re really thin there.  And we’re not going to be able to answer it until we get some reinforcement.  This recruiting class should help us next year where we have depth in personnel.

“We’re still one click behind in special teams with the depth of the personnel that we need.  And that’s just the fact.  We’re playing some young guys there that have to get better.  But I like where we’re going to go.  I think our punt return is going to be really good.  I think we’re going to have some guys that we’ll be able to get on that team.

“But we are who we are right now.  We’re clearly disappointed we have to do a better job.  We have to give George Atkinson more room.  We’ve gotta do a better job.  And we can.  We just have to be better at that area right now.”

Even while missing two of three field goals against BYU, Kyle Brindza is 11 of 15 on the season, and perfect on his extra point attempts. Brindza missed an attempt from inside 30 yards against the Cougars, and another from 40 yards on the first series of the game. His misses for the season are sort of a mixed bag. His miss against Miami before the half was also an easy kick that just sailed wide. While he hasn’t been asked to try a kick from 50 yards or more, that seems more a product of situation, not a fear of letting Brindza let it loose.

The punt return game, an improvement over last year while still being ranked 114th in the country tells you all you need to know about this unit. But Kelly’s explanation, particularly about the loss of Lo Wood and Jamoris Slaughter makes some sense as well. Blocking in space is one of the harder jobs in college football, and the use of the spread punt has forced one-on-one match-ups for blockers in the punt return game.

When you look at the youth on this team in the secondary, where Bob Elliott and Kerry Cooks are coaching a troop of young, inexperienced freshmen, you start to understand that the Irish are very limited with veteran depth. They have either starters — guys like Zeke Motta and Bennett Jackson — or unproven, untested guys like Nicky Baratti, who are learning on the fly. You’ve got to think the loss of Austin Collinsworth was also a killer.

It’s interesting that Kelly was able to use scheme and extremely talented guys like Manti Te’o and Stephon Tuitt to shore up the defense. But in special teams, a unit where journeymen like Chris Salvi and Steve Filer are your aces, that lack of functional veteran depth just doesn’t exist on this roster.

Lastly, Kelly seemingly acknowledges that the Irish need to do a better job giving Atkinson return opportunities. Whether he’s been stifled because of the change in kickoffs, or the blocking just hasn’t been there, you’ve got to think it’s only a matter of time before Atkinson sees a crease and makes an explosive play.