John Crist: Junior Dustin Hopkins been one of the most proficient kickers in the country for quite some time now and has a huge leg, as evidenced by the fact that he was a first-team All-ACC pick and is one of three finalists for the Lou Groza Award. The Houston, Texas, native has split the uprights on 20 of 25 field-goal attempts and all 44 of his extra-point tries, and his tremendous range allowed him to convert on a 53-yarder against Oklahoma -- he made an incredible 60-yarder on the final play of the first half in the spring game, too.
Additionally, Hopkins is a legitimate weapon in the field-position battle, with 27 of his 77 kickoffs (37.7 percent) this season resulting in touchbacks. The 6-2, 190-pounder did miss a potential game-winning 42-yarder in the closing seconds against Virginia. In his defense, the replay booth forced him to wait seemingly forever prior to his kick before finally deciding what call to make on the previous play.
Tim O'Malley: In 2010, senior walk-on David Ruffer unexpectedly won the job over returning scholarship kicker Nick Tausch – the latter had broken a 28-year program record by hitting 14 straight field goals the previous season under former head coach, Charlie Weis. Ruffer took the job in August and never looked back, hitting his first 18 field goals – 23 consecutive dating back to a 5 for 5 performance in November 2009 – for a new program record unlikely to be approached.
Ruffer missed his last kick to finish 23 of 24 in 2010. With a 5th-year scholarship in tow he then missed his first offering in 2011 – a crucial chip shot in the opening game loss to South Florida. He uncharacteristically kicked wide on three of his next four, struggling to a 2 for 5 start to the season. Ruffer righted the ship, hitting eight straight before another momentum-killing miss from 20 yards at Stanford to finish 10 for 15 on the year. (Four of his five misses occurred inside the 40-yard line; he's conversely hit four straight from 40+ including a 52-yarder vs. Maryland).
Ruffer was the best single-season kicker in program history last year – this year, whether a technical issue exists as rumored early, or he simply has a mental block most kickers face at some point, he's no longer a sure thing.
JC: In all seriousness, senior Shawn Powell might be the MVP of the Seminoles this season and could be that rare punter who actually hears his name called in the NFL Draft come April. The 6-4, 235-pounder leads the nation with an average of 47.0 yards on 49 punts, plus he managed to drop 21 of them (42.9 percent) inside the enemy 20-yard line -- he has had only five touchbacks all year long.
Against Florida, a game that saw Florida State put together a grand total of 95 yards offensively, yet still win 21-7; Powell continually backed the Gators up deep in their own end and forced them to drive the length of the field if they wanted to score. Somehow, the product of Rome, Georgia, didn't make the cut for the Ray Guy Award. But coach Jimbo Fisher knows what he has and wouldn't trade Powell for any punter in college football.
TO: Junior Ben Turk struggled mightily early but his end product was solid: 40.2 yards per punt, though with 14 kicks inside the 20-yard line and four bouncing as touchbacks, Turk fell short of special teams coordinator Mike Elston's stated goal of an 8-to-1 ratio of downed punts to touchbacks inside the 20-yard line. Of Turk's 46 punts, only 13 were returned, and five traveled more than 50 yards. Irish fans may cringe when Turk sets deep to punt on December 29 because he was impossibly poor in the opening pair of losses, but he's since settled in as a solid collegiate punter.
JC: The 'Noles have averaged 24.8 yards on 28 kick returns as a team this season, which is a respectable number considering nobody took one to the house and inflated that average with a single effort of 90-plus. Notre Dame will have to choose between junior Greg Reid and sophomore Lamarcus Joyner, who average 24.5 and 26.7 yards per return, respectively. Reid is the more explosive of the two, as he's slippery in the open field and always a threat to take it the distance. Joyner, on the other hand, tends to hit the first crease he can find and hit it hard, so rarely does he get tackled inside the 20-yard line.
FSU will be without the services of freshman Karlos Williams, who is quite a dangerous return man himself -- he had a touchdown against Miami called back due to a ticky-tack holding penalty -- but broke his wrist in the Florida game and won't be available for the Champs Sports Bowl.
TO: Freshman running back George Atkinson is the program's best kick returner since at least 2002-03, when cornerback and return man extraordinaire Vontez Duff burned foes on both punts and kicks. Atkinson is one of 10 players to record two or more touchdowns on kick returns with an 89-yard score that gave the Irish a momentum boost in a 31-13 win over Michigan State and a 96-yard burst that provided life in the first half vs. USC. Fans can't ask for much more from a freshman return threat than two scores vs. two of the three best opponents the team faced in 2011 (Stanford, the best squad the Irish encountered, regularly kicked away from Atkinson in the season finale).
Atkinson averaged 27.40 yards per return, adding 40+ yard returns vs. Air Force and Wake Forest. Only Boston College held him in check (1 return for 17 yards). Top blockers include sophomores Justin Utupo, Austin Collinsworth, and Kendall Moore, freshman Troy Niklas, and senior walk-on Chris Salvi. Star running back Jonas Gray and senior linebacker Steve Filer were also part of the blocking wall for Atkinson's touchdown returns. Both are out for the season due to late season knee injuries.
JC: While playmaking freshman Rashad Greene did return three punts this season, Reid is the primary punt returner and has a reputation as one of the scariest in the business. On 35 attempts, the 5-8, 186-pounder has averaged 11.4 yards and scored one touchdown -- the TD came in the final minute of the first half against Miami and gave Florida State all the momentum before heading to the locker room.
Reid's game is all about confidence, and he didn't have very much for one reason or another earlier in the year. But when he's feeling it, he forces fans to creep to the edge of their seats with anticipation. Reid's average could be much more impressive had the 'Noles not been called for so many penalties on special teams, as they've wiped away a handful of his longer efforts.
TO: A misnomer, as ND doesn't technically "return" punts, or at least hasn't been bothered with the game day nuisance since a Week Four win at Pittsburgh when it earned an honest-to-goodness yard following an opponent's punt. The Irish rank 120th out of 120 teams in the FBS with a laughable 0.3 yard per game average. The unit has produced one more yard on the season (3) than fumbles lost (2). They would likely rank last in the FCS, the NFL, the IHSAA, the FHSAA, or at your local schoolyard as well. Senior wide receiver John Goodman is the lead fair catch option with classmate Michael Floyd occasionally dropping deep over the season's second half.
It matters little, as neither Peter Warrick nor Rocket Ismail could consistently gain positive ground behind the utter lack of blocking employed by the Irish punt return unit. (But a new return man option probably couldn't hurt, if either player – well into their 30s and 40s, respectively) is available.
JC: When it comes to "hidden yardage," Florida State has been sensational all season long and remarkably consistent from week to week. The Seminoles have surrendered only two kick returns of 30-plus yards in 12 games, which is tied for fifth best among FBS programs -- only Western Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Kentucky and Miami (Ohio) have given up fewer. Credit Hopkins and his strong leg for launching the ball out of the end zone time and time again, plus the coverage units are loaded with lightning-fast tacklers.
As far as punt returns are concerned, FSU is one of 46 schools that did not allow one of 30-plus yards. Powell deserves a tip of the cap there, but again the coverage has been excellent more often than not. In addition to Hopkins, Powell and Reid, junior defensive end Toshmon Stevens was named one of the special-teams MVPs at the annual awards banquet this past Sunday.
TO: For the first time since 2008, the Irish coverage units did not allow a kick or punt to be returned for a score this season, but South Florida (34), Michigan (21), and USC (26) all burned the Irish with big punt returns in victories. The team's official punt coverage ranking – 98th out of 120 FBS teams – is misleading as seven teams were held to no gain or negative yardage and the Irish covered just 13 punts – three noted above hit for big yardage, skewing the final average of 11.0 per return.
Kickoffs are handled by true freshman Kyle Brindza, who matched Ruffer's 2010 total of 11 touchbacks while averaging 65.1 yards per kick-off. Brindza kicked four out of bounds in 2011, which is likely three too many for any coach's liking. The kick coverage unit had notable breakdowns vs. Wake Forest (a 59-yarder that Josh Atkinson ran down to prevent a score), Michigan State (a 42-yard return) and Purdue (39 yards), but as a whole the group is an aggressive, capable unit that finished 58th nationally at 21.39 yards per return.
Austin Collinsworth is the team's top coverage man and tackler, while George Atkinson, Kendall Moore, Danny Spond, and Chris Salvi are also solid. Last year's coverage star was then-freshman Bennett Jackson; he's struggled a bit in space this season, missing open shots that turned into long gains on both kickoffs and punts (notably USC). Jackson was the team's Special Teams Player of the Year in 2010; that award will likely go to George Atkinson this fall with Collinsworth the dark horse candidate. The latter injured his ankle in Game 11 vs. Boston College but should be ready for the bowl matchup.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher of IrishEyes.com.