Gone Camping: Return Units

The conclusion of our special teams preview looks at Notre Dame's return units, two groups that struggled throughout 2010.

Click here for Part I and a look at the team's coverage units as well as the team's field goal trio led by returning stalwarts, David Ruffer and Ryan Kavanagh.

Kick Return Candidates

Notre Dame ranked a pedestrian #75 in kick return average last fall, never topping 40 yards on a single effort.

Since 2002 when Vontez Duff and Arnaz Battle led the return unit to a #15 national finish, the Irish kick return group has finished with the following season rankings: 75, 87, 89, 39, 94, 53, 66, and ultimately 75th last fall. (In 2000, Notre Dame finished #3 in the nation thanks to the efforts of kick returners Julius Jones, David Givens and Tony Driver.)

Early August predictions for the lead role are likely futile, as camp will again feature open auditions in an effort to instill some punch into a stagnant return game.

  1. Bennett Jackson: Earned the lead role for a Week Five trip to Boston College and returned the opening kick-off 40 yards – a season-high that stood through the campaign's conclusion. With better blocking in front of him, Jackson has the speed if not innate elusiveness necessary to thrive in the role.
  2. George Atkinson: One of those rare players that's simply faster in pads than those chasing him. Atkinson is our dark horse candidate to field the season's opening kick-off by South Florida.
  3. Matthias Farley: Too good of an athlete not to receive a look.
  4. DaVaris Daniels: Part III of an intriguing trio of freshmen candidates.
  5. Austin Collinsworth: Will likely serve as the secondary return man, lead blocker, and "decision-maker" as coined by head coach Brian Kelly.
  6. Theo Riddick: Only if everyone else fails spectacularly. Look for Riddick to serve as the lead punt returner this fall. Now a junior, Riddick averaged 22.9 yards per return as a freshman kick returner in 2009, though with a long effort of just 38 yards in 37 attempts.

Projected Kick Return Team Starters: The Irish lost seniors Darrin Walls (front line), Robert Hughes, and Duval Kamara (both second-level protectors), from last year's unit. Hughes and Kamara were late-season additions that aided a struggling group.

  • Daniel Smith: Size/speed ratio make him an intriguing option as a blocker on the move – one assigned to an outside coverage speedster.
  • Steve Filer: The team's most experienced special teams player is a given for the role.
  • Carlo Calabrese: Teamed with Filer and Smith late last season as front line blockers aligned to the (opposing) kicker's left.
  • Harrison Smith: Athletically, there's not much he can't do, and he's an ideal front-line blocker (hands, speed, strength), though the Irish would be wise to limit his special teams roles this fall.
  • Robert Blanton: A prime candidate take over Darrin Walls' role as a front line blocker (and thus a default hands-team member).
  • Dan Fox: It's hard to imagine he'll lose any of his myriad specialty roles.
  • Mike Ragone: Longtime member of the second/third level blockers.
  • Zeke Motta: Likely candidate to help limit Harrison Smith's field time over the course of 13 games.
  • Jake Golic: An ideal situation for the physical junior tight end to earn his first consistent field time.
  • Austin Collinsworth: If he's not the secondary return man as noted above, look for Collinsworth to occupy a spot on the perimeter of the front line kick return unit.

In a March 2011 interview, Special Teams Coordinator Mike Elston spoke about the team's struggles in the return game last fall:

"It was mostly blocking. In that position, it takes awhile to get a feel for your personnel. We had guys on kick-off alone that were six true freshmen," he noted of the 2010 group. "Well, when you're running down the field full speed (forward), your skill set is what you're carrying with you, and you're going to be (naturally) pretty good.

"But when you back them up (return game blockers), and now they have to run backwards and they have to attack that guy across from them, that's hard to do. We were using a lot of young guys, we didn't have a lot of skill on the team – so we had to use them. It was a combination of mostly blocking, and a lack of experience on the back end."

Punt Return Candidates

As noted in our Camp Battles column earlier this week, from Game 4 vs. Stanford through Game 13 vs. Miami, Notre Dame punt returners totaled a ridiculously low total of 17 yards, while calling for a staggering 23 fair catches...and also losing a fumble (in the loss to Tulsa).

Candidates abound, but our bet for the lead punt return role is junior wide receiver Theo Riddick, as previewed by head coach Brian Kelly last spring.

Others to be evaluated should include: Senior Dan McCarthy, junior Robby Toma, sophomores Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson, freshmen DaVaris Daniels and Matthias Farley, and incumbent but much-maligned senior, John Goodman, who finished with a 1.3-yard average on 13 attempts (vs. 23 fair catches) last fall.

Goodman recorded a 13-yard return vs. Michigan State in Week Three as well as another lengthy return called back due to penalty vs. the Spartans.

Notre Dame officially totaled 91 yards on 17 punt returns last fall, but the total is skewed by both a 38-yard effort from since-graduated senior Armando Allen in the season-opener, and Robert Blanton's blocked punt touchdown – a six-yard recovery and score nonetheless credited as 25 total punt return yards – marking Utah's line of scrimmage prior to the blocked punt.

Top 6 Returning Players from 2010

Based solely on 2010 performance…

  1. David Ruffer: The only thing missing was a game winning kick (attempt)...
  2. Bennett Jackson: Special Teams Player of the Year as a true freshman...
  3. Steve Filer: Two-time reigning ST tackles leader...
  4. Dan Fox: Unsung regular of coverage and return units...
  5. Robert Blanton: Blocked punt, scoop, and score was the key blow in a 28-3 upset of then-#14 Utah on Senior Day...
  6. Austin Collinsworth: Regularly around the ball, finishing with six tackles and a forced fumble that led to an Irish score (also vs. the Utes).

Top 6 Projected Players for 2011: Riddick (PR) and Atkinson (KR) are my pre-season choices to emerge in the return game, while Jackson can be unstoppable sprinting through the heart of the opponent's kick return unit before breaking down for a tackle in space.

  1. David Ruffer: Could finish as the best kicker in program history...
  2. Theo Riddick: Poised to help turn around a terrible punt return group...
  3. Bennett Jackson: Simply cannot be single blocked on the move...
  4. George Atkinson Surprise kick return starter for 2011...
  5. Ben Turk Better than credited by fans and media...
  6. Steve Filer Steady as she goes.

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