Special teams duties are (almost) set

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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.