Tim O'Malley: If you take away George Atkinson's top two returns – both touchdowns – the freshman from Stockton, Calif. would still have the highest kick return average for a qualifying Notre Dame player since 2002.
His best returns, count, of course. So too does the fact that Notre Dame's average starting field position following his second kick return score, a 96-yard spark for a score vs. USC in mid-October, is their 35 yard-line (not including onside kicks and a lone touchback). Stanford, the best team on Notre Dame's schedule this season and a team that allowed just over 20 yards per kick return, elected to kick short or away from Atkinson for the bulk of the contest, with resulting Irish field position starting at the 36.
His impact on the game ranks as an inconsistent specialty units biggest strength, and he's the only Notre Dame kick returner to make a consistent impact since Vontez Duff in 2002, but as all return men find out (and Notre Dame punt returners have found out the hard way this season), it's the blocking up front that counts. For Atkinson, extreme efforts by teammates Chris Salvi (Michigan State) and Justin Utupo (USC) provided clear paths for his 89-yard and 96-yard scores, respectively.
Salvi famously "pinballed" in the words of Spartans coach Mark Dantonio, two would-be tacklers with a crushing block that felled both defenders at the Notre Dame 25-yard line in the process. Utupo asked for a seek-and-destroy mission vs. Trojans coverman extraordinaire George Farmer, and the Irish redshirt-freshman linebacker laid Farmer out at the 15-yard line. A wall provided by freshman Troy Niklas, senior Steve Filer (since injured), and senior safety Dan McCarthy allowed Atkinson a nearly untouched return of 96 yards. All he had to do was run fast.
Atkinson's straight-line speed is his No. 1 asset at present. His confidence in the likes of Utupo, Niklas, Salvi, and McCarthy to control their coverage assignments allows him to make an impact nearly every week.
John Crist: Florida State featured more than a few fleet-footed return men during the regular season, even if the Seminoles recorded but one touchdown directly off the kicking game.
That TD came courtesy of a punt return by junior Greg Reid, and it was a huge one since it pushed FSU's lead over Miami to 17-7 with under a minute to go in the first half of an eventual 23-19 victory. Reid, sophomore Lamarcus Joyner and freshman Karlos Williams handled the majority of the kick-return duties in 2011, each making a big play or two, although the 'Noles continued to hurt themselves time and time again with special-team penalties that took away good field position -- and even erased a score from Williams in that same UM game.
Reid is arguably the most dangerous player on the roster with the ball in his hands, whether he gets it via punt return, kick return or interception when playing cornerback. He's truly gifted when it comes to sideline-to-sideline vision and change-of-direction explosiveness, so he's not necessarily dependent on a wall of blockers being set up on one side of the field. As a matter of fact, his return score against the Hurricanes was over almost before it even got started, as he simply split a crease up the middle and then jogged the rest of the way to paydirt untouched.
Joyner, on the other hand, doesn't have as much shake and bake in his hips and is reliant on quality blocking in front of him. He's all business, a north-and-south runner, plus he's more likely to gain a few extra yards after contact since he's more physical than Reid.
Freshman James Wilder Jr. can be a devastating blocker and was recently named one of two Special Teams Newcomers of the Year, alongside Williams, but he's had some laundry thrown at him once or twice.
TO: For the second straight season, a class of 2010 recruit took home the squad's Special Teams Player of the Year award (and earned a fantastic boxing/pro wrestling style championship belt as his trophy). Both winners, Bennett Jackson in 2010 and Austin Collinsworth in 2011, began their Irish careers as wide receivers. Both moved to the defensive backfield as sophomores last spring and now rank as the best open-field tacklers on the coverage units over the course of their careers (Jackson made a much bigger impact last fall than this season).
Collinsworth was the best this fall, leading the team with 15 special teams tackles including 13 covering kicks. (The Irish faced just 13 punt return attempts this season). Collinsworth, who's caused two kick return fumbles over the last 17 games, is fearless in his sprints through traffic, has a nose for the ball, and possesses the innate ability to breakdown and make a stop vs. a cutting return man in short space.
Augmenting his coverage efforts late was the aforementioned Troy Niklas. At nearly 6'6" 250 pounds, the freshman linebacker is an imposing figure running under kicks (teammate Manti Te'o dubbed him "Hercules" in fall camp. Niklas finished second to Collinsworth this fall with 10 solo stops in kick coverage. Walk-on safety Chris Salvi (8 tackles), and return man George Atkinson (7 solos) combined with Collinsworth and Niklas to record 38 of the team's 69 kick return stops this fall.
Collinsworth is the key, but his trio of aides and the previously spectacular Jackson gave the kick coverage unit punch in 2011.
JC: The Seminoles have some of the better coverage units in the nation because they have perhaps the best kicking-and-punting tandem in the nation.
Junior kicker Dustin Hopkins not only has a monster leg capable of booting field goals routinely from 50-plus, but he's also a touchback machine after scores. Senior punter Shawn Powell led the country with an average of 47.0 yards per attempt and has already made his share of All-American teams.
Hopkins was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award and should follow in the footsteps -- see what I did there? -- of Sebastian Janikowski and Graham Gano, former Florida State kickers currently in the NFL, but it was Powell who was the special-teams star for the 'Noles this year. Despite having a Howitzer attached to his right hip, Powell does so much more than simply launch the ball downfield. 21 of his 49 punts ended up inside the enemy 20-yard line, and the fact that only five of them bounced into the end zone proves he has as much touch as he does power.
When it comes to covering kicks, junior Toshmon Stevens is awfully fast getting down the field for someone that's a defensive end by trade. Other coverage demons of note are junior Avis Commack and sophomore Terrence Brooks.
The aforementioned Williams will miss the Champs Sports Bowl due to a broken wrist suffered in the finale at Florida, which is a shame since even Notre Dame fans may have enjoyed watching him blow up blockers at full speed covering kickoffs.
John Crist is editor-in-chief of NoleDigest.com. Tim O'Malley is publisher and managing editor of IrishEyes.com.