Thoughts for Thursday

Updates (and opinions) on Theo Riddick's injury, 20 games (and counting) of punt return futility, a few all-time top fives, and a year-end wish list…

Asked Wednesday night if junior slot receiver Theo Riddick could play Saturday, Irish head coach Brian Kelly offered that though Riddick "ran around" at practice, it was unlikely he'd be deemed ready in a starting capacity. In injury parlance, that means Riddick won't play outside of an emergent situation vs. Boston College.

"I don't think he's going to be a guy that cane come in and start for us. We're hoping we can utilize him in a role and try to get him engaged in the game," Kelly said. "We'll continue to practice him, continue to work him out and see where we go from there."

Though Kelly is likely trying to get Riddick ready to help out next Saturday at powerful Stanford, my guess is you'll next see the versatile junior in action in Jacksonville in late December…

Sorting through a special problem

Notre Dame hasn't gained a punt return yard since they left Ann Arbor. While that's unique (unheard of) nationally, punt return struggles, are not.

"It's two things," Kelly began of the improved punt coverage in the college game. "One, when you were allowed to go cover prior to the punt (a long-standing rule) and two, when teams committed in college to spreading the field it really took a hit.

"I remember when you had to wait until the ball was kicked, you could set up walls, get behind the picket fence and all that stuff, you got no chance for that (now)," he continued of present-day return options. "You just need an electric guy there that makes the first couple (defenders) miss. So some of it has been rule change and some of it has been a lot more focus and attention to the special teams."

89 of 120 FBS teams have had fewer than 20 punt return opportunities (Notre Dame has had 10 chances – 22 other teams have had 10 or fewer). The Irish returned 17 punts for 91 yards and a touchdown last year, though included in that total is a blocked punt score of technically 25 yards from Robert Blanton (Utah). Armando Allen debuted as the return man last year and promptly gained 38 yards vs. Purdue, but injured his hand two games later, removing him from the equation.

Over the last 10 games of 2010, Notre Dame returners offered 23 fair catches and gained nine total return yards with a lost fumble.

In 2009, Notre Dame returned 18 punts with a national ranking of #20 and 12.89 per return due largely to Golden Tate's 89-yard score at Pittsburgh. That same season, Brian Kelly's Cincinnati squad ranked 18th nationally (buoyed by Marty Gilyard) and returned one more punt than did the Irish.

Just three years ago (2008), Notre Dame returned 26 punts. They had the same number of opportunities in 2007 and 23 in 2006. Former star Tom Zbikowski averaged 14 yards on 27 punt returns in 2005 – the best single-season return effort since Joey Getherall excelled in the role in the BCS season of 2000 (16.3 per return on 24 attempts, though four other Irish players returned seven punts for an additional 92 yards that season – numbers that suggest blocking by the unit was as important a factor as Getherall's unique ability).

Notre Dame has all but abandoned the possibility of a positive gain via the punt return this season, fair-catching on 22 occasions (with one fumble lost) and watching (either due to a solid or poor punt) another 11 punts to be downed by the coverage unit. Three boots have resulted in touchbacks (a positive for the return team) while six others sailed out of bounds.

The last punt return yard gained by Notre Dame was at Pittsburgh in Week Four (1 yard). But the unit was penalized once for roughing vs. the Panthers as well (an automatic first down for the defense)...and for holding (at Michigan), and also beaten for a first down by one fake punt (Air Force).

On the positive side of the ledger, the return unit also drew a penalty of five yards vs. Michigan in Week Two and John Goodman brought back a punt that evening for 13 yards, the longest since Week One last year as noted above.

Kelly offered in late October the team's return struggles would be studied in detail during the 2012 off-season.

Quick hitters

Not everything can become a full-page column with numbers to back up theories. As a result, below is the first of several such sections between now and…well, Ireland, next September.

  • Senior center Mike Golic will likely earn a fifth season of eligibility with his late-season starting role. Golic might have been asked back as a backup senior center had he not proven himself on the field (he had no crunch time experience prior to the Wake Forest game), but at this point it would be ludicrous to move on without him.

    Which begs the question: can the next "on the fence" candidate earn a spot with similar late-season exposure? With Theo Riddick out or limited, can John Goodman show enough to return to what will be a green receiving corps next year?

  • Speaking of future pass-catchers, will freshman tight end Ben Koyack be released downfield at some point this season? It's interesting that his purported strength upon entering college would be that of a downfield target – but one that would struggle as a blocker. He's instead been part of the team's power package and rarely ventured past the low zones as an outlet option…

  • On the fringe of the Top 10: Tommy Rees (currently #9), Jamoris Slaughter (#10), Chris Watt (#10B) and Darius Fleming…I've considered the possibility of adding freshman defensive lineman Stephon Tuitt, pending his play vs. Boston College, Stanford, and the bowl foe. His versatility might have saved the Irish a loss along the way. Regardless, the 2012 trio of Tuitt, Aaron Lynch, and Kapron Lewis-Moore (5th-year) could be the team's best three-man rotation at the DE position since 2002 (Ryan Roberts, Justin Tuck, Kyle Budinscak, albeit in a true 4-3 front).

  • I was remiss not to mention Ethan Johnson in the latest edition of Rank and File. Johnson was a rock prior to his Week Five ankle injury, but after 10 games, he's missed as many contests as he'd appeared, and was thus off my radar. If healthy, Johnson and Lewis-Moore (out) plus Tuitt and Lynch would have given the Irish a real chance to handle Stanford's powerful front wall in two weeks. It'll be an uphill battle for the unit as currently constructed….

  • Five keys to a 2-0 finish: Louis Nix, Sean Cwynar, Manti Te'o's ankle, Tommy Rees' decision-making, and Michael Floyd playing his best game of the season (not necessarily statistically) next week.

  • With apologies to Jack Snow and anyone prior to 1980 at the program, the six best with the ball in the air and with a contested catch in question, are: Golden Tate, Tim Brown, Derrick Mayes, Michael Floyd, and Lake Dawson/Jeff Samardzija…in that order.

  • With apologies to Nick Eddy and anyone prior to 1980 at the program, the five best guys with the football in their hands and 12 inches of daylight, are: Rocket Ismail, Tim Brown, Golden Tate, Ricky Watters, and Lee Becton…in that order. Cierre Wood has two more years to join the conversation – he should exercise that optional 5th in 2013...

  • Five best senior breakouts: Reggie Brooks, Jonas Gray, Shane Walton, Kevin McDougal, and Maurice Stovall

    Adding Julius Jones to the list would be cheating, but he was twice as good as a breakout 5th-year as he had been in prior seasons. And since it's my column, I have the final say…

  • Finally, five bowl matchups I'd like to see (some can't happen) for the 2011 Irish: Boise State, Nebraska, Georgia, Florida State, and any SEC leftover…Also: not Oregon. Top Stories