Specialty Work

Practice No. 5 of fall camp and the first of two sessions today was the first full-pads session for Brian Kelly's 2011 Irish.

The most pleasant South Bend weather of at least the last three months greeted head coach Brian Kelly and his Irish for practice No. 5 – the first full-pads edition of 2011 training camp.

The media viewing period on Field No. 1 offered a look at the team's specialty units, notably its kick and punt coverage/return groups.

Deep to accept punts for the Irish were the alternating quartet of 5th-year senior safety Harrison Smith, senior wide receiver Deion Walker, and a pair of true freshmen: wide receiver DaVaris Daniels – whose father and former NFL Defensive End, Philip, was in attendance with family in tow – and running back Cam McDaniel.

(Due likely to simultaneous unit work with the wide receivers on Field No. 2, punt return candidates such as Theo Riddick, Robby Toma, and John Goodman were not present.)

Intermittent breeze and bright sun challenged the return foursome, with only Smith avoiding a muffed punt during nearly 34 snaps. McDaniel dropped two of his final four offerings and appeared to fight the sun/breeze throughout his portion of reps.

Punt Coverage

The first-string punt coverage group, one that worked against full-speed Irish walk-ons and Scout team members wearing orange shells on their helmets, appeared as such:

  • Cornerback Bennett Jackson (right) and safety Austin Collinsworth (left) flanked the perimeter of the line of scrimmage.
  • Safety Jamoris Slaughter (right) and linebacker Steve Filer (left) aligned inside Jackson/Collinsworth, respectively
  • Linebackers Danny Spond (right) and Dan Fox (left) inside Slaughter/Filer, and next to long-snapper, Jordan Cowart, completing a seven-player bunch formation – identical to the "spread" method the Irish and most collegiate teams employed last season.
  • Junior *Ben Turk punted for the first unit. His trio of protectors, aligned approximately seven yards beyond the line of scrimmage, were sophomore offensive tackle Christian Lombard, classmate Tate Nichols – aka, the world's largest human – and freshman specimen/defensive end, Troy Niklas. I can't stress enough how much Niklas looks like an NBA player despite the helmet and pads…

    (*A punter receives the snap 13 yards deep).

The final verdict on Turk's punts (overheard) from special teams coordinator Mike Elston: "Stop short-arming…get it out on your foot."

In other words, Turk's mechanical issue today resided in his ball placement – thereby limiting effectiveness/consistency in the end result.

The second unit aligned as follows:

  • Sophomore cornerback Lo Wood (right) and freshman wide receiver Matthias Farley (left) on the perimeter of scrimmage
  • Sophomore linebacker Kendall Moore (right) and freshman running back George Atkinson (left) aligned inside Wood/Farley, respectively
  • Freshman outside linebacker Ben Councell (right) and sophomore ‘backer Prince Shembo (left) inside Moore/Atkinson and flanking walk-on long-snapper (and field goal/PAT holder) Ryan Kavanagh
  • Freshman Kyle Brindza punted for the second unit. His trio of protectors were 5th-year senior guard Andrew Nuss, freshman guard Conor Hanratty, and freshman tight end Ben Koyack.

Brindza's punts were inconsistent (at least two never turned over, spiraling downward toward the near sideline), but he unleashed a bomb in his penultimate attempt, driving Harrison Smith back several yards for the catch (approximately 55 yards downfield, though I was standing closer to the punters than the returners).

Elston told Irisheyes.com on Monday that: "Ben has to be better," when I noted the positives of Turks' inconsistent 2010 season, notably 26 punts downed inside the 20-yard line vs. three touchbacks. (Elston offered to us last September that the goal is an 8-1 ratio.) Turk had 14 punts returned by the opposition last season, a number Elston referred to as "a little high."

(As an aside: It's worth noting, when I referenced the 2010 punt coverage season as "nearly flawless, but for one costly mistake," Elston concurred. Tulsa returned a punt 59 yards vs. the Irish for a score, but Notre Dame allowed an obscenely low 18 total yards over the remaining 12 contest.)

Kick Coverage/Return Competitors

Freshmen DaVaris Daniels and George Atkinson alternated as the deep return men with sophomores Bennett Jackson (first unit) and Austin Collinsworth (second) aligned in front of them beyond the 5-yard line.

Both Daniels and Atkinson held onto footballs while kickers David Ruffer and Kyle Brindza kicked off. The purpose: to ensure a return attempt during each rep, combating a somewhat breezy morning in South Bend. Thus, while each booted ball landed in varied areas (gravity takes over, you know), but Daniels and Atkinson started every return from the goal line.

The first-unit kick return team included linebacker David Posluszny, Kendall Moore, and Dan Fox on the first line. They were flanked by freshmen Matthias Farley (far left) and safety Eilar Hardy (far right). Junior Robby Toma replaced Farley at times as the former was involved with unit work on an adjacent field.

Behind the front wall of blockers was linebacker Danny Spond (middle) and Steve Filer (middle, approximately 10 yards behind Spond), with Troy Niklas (left) and sophomore tight end Alex Welch (right) as the last pair of blockers in front of the return men Jackson and Daniels.

The second unit included freshman linebacker Ishaq Williams, sophomore wide receiver Luke Massa, and senior wide receiver Deion Walker, with Farley again taking reps on the perimeter of the front line (left) and Lo Wood also manning the perimeter (right).

Freshman linebacker Ben Councell occupied the middle zone (the other second level blocker (the equivalent of Steve Filer from the first unit, was obscured from my vantage point). Tight ends Ben Koyack (left) and junior Jake Golic (right) aligned outside the hash marks as the last pair of blockers before return men Collinsworth and Atkinson.

Though the blocking was live (as was "block destruction" to borrow a phrase from defensive coordinator Bob Diaco), there was no tackling of the return men. Thus, DaVaris Daniels, at full speed, looked quite impressive shooting through return gaps (he seemed less hesitant than did Atkinson, though I must admit I was watching the contact more than the return efforts).

Covering first-unit kickoffs along with kicker David Ruffer were familiar faces with a pair of first-timers: Two-time special teams tackles leader Steve Filer (right) and walk-on running back Patrick Coughlin (left) flanked Ruffer; Bennett Jackson and Kendall Moore (aligned outside Coughlin and Filer, respectively); moving toward the sidelines from Jackson and Moore were Dan Fox (right) and Eilar Hardy (left); then Troy Niklas (right) and Austin Collinsworth (left); with Danny Spond (right) and Lo Wood (left) securing the perimeter.

Of note: Niklas' imposing 6'6" frame running under a kickoff looks both intimidating and unnatural...albeit a bit curious. If he can adapt (full-speed sprint followed by a breakdown and hit vs. a quicker, moving target, at least one opposing return man will be de-cleated this fall in South Bend).

In total, and including junior Robby Toma who filled in both for the return and coverage units, 36 players took part in the pair of specialty sessions the media witnessed Wednesday afternoon. Of the 36, 14 have yet to play a collegiate down (freshmen or redshirt-freshmen).

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