Look-ahead: Specialists

O'Malley's ninth of 10 looks at Notre Dame's position groups heading into spring ball – verbal pledges included.

Our ninth in a series of looks at Notre Dame's position groups with a handful of recruiting and 5th-year options still pending.

Specialists and Return Units

The team's kick and punt return units produced polar opposite results with the former ranking as the program's best in nine seasons and the latter ranking as the worst in team history.

Departing: 5th-year senior place-kicker David Ruffer; senior walk-on holder and long-snapper, Ryan Kavanagh, late-season punt returner, Michael Floyd.

Players Returning: (Punter Ben Turk, kick-off specialist Kyle Brindza, and long-snapper Jordan Cowart will be reviewed as part of our Coverage Teams Breakdown).

  • Place-kicker Nick Tausch – Senior-to-be did not play last season and is thus eligible to kick for the Irish through the 2013 season should he win a starting job. Tausch has connected on 15 of 18 career field goal attempts including a 14 for 17 effort as a true freshman in 2009. He missed his first career attempt and responded by drilling 14 straight – then a Notre Dame record.

  • Kick Returner George Atkinson III – Returned his second career kick-off attempt for an 89-yard touchdown vs. Michigan State and never looked back, ranking as the team's most dangerous single-season kick return man since Vontez Duff in 2002. Atkinson finished with a pair of scores and ranked 19th overall with a 26.14 average – the highest at the University since Duff (27.7) in '02.

  • Punt Returner Theo Riddick – Replaced after the first half of the season opener following one fumble (lost) and one muffed punt. Returned the season's final punt in with under 15 seconds remaining vs. Florida State but his 1-yard effort was nullified by an Irish penalty.

  • Kick Returner Austin Collinsworth – Returned seven kicks for 144 yards but made his wares as the lead blocker for Atkinson. The ideal second returner as he's a willing hitter with sure hands that runs aggressively in limited opportunities.

Potentially Returning: Senior John Goodman purportedly received an offer to return for his 5th-season though likely to compete at wide receiver rather than as a punt returner. Goodman averaged 0.65 yards per return on eight attempts last fall while offering 26 fair catches of opponents' punts.

Incoming: Verbal pledges Keivarae Russell (RB/WR), Deontay Greenberry (WR), C.J. Prosise (S), and Chris Brown (WR) will certainly get initial looks, though none of the quartet arrives until next summer. Current spring prospects for the punt return team include freshmen Cam McDaniel (RB) and George Atkinson (RB/KR) as well as receivers DaVaris Daniels and Matthias Farley; sophomore Austin Collinsworth (S/KR); and juniors Robby Toma (WR) and Theo Riddick (RB/WR).

Atkinson and Collinsworth should hold down their dual kick return roles, though look for Daniels, Farley, or McDaniel to move into the mix as Atkinson's backup during the spring.

Current freshman Kyle Brindza will compete with Tausch for the field goal kicker role vacated by graduated 5th-year senior David Ruffer. Brindza did not attempt a kick as a true freshman, serving instead as the team's kick-off specialist.

Incoming long-snapper recruit Scott Daly will compete with the incumbent Cowart, though Daly doesn't arrive until the summer session in late June.

Potential Position Switches: The entire punt return team personnel should be subject to change. No blocker nor return option competitor should be considered safe on what was the worst punt return unit in program history (one that followed the 2010 group considered the worst at the time).

Hunches

Daniels will exit spring ball as the lead punt return option though that fact need not be released as the Irish don't field punts during the annual Blue Gold Game…Tausch takes the spring lead over Brindza for field goal duties with August camp the deciding factor…Cowart wins the spring long-snapper competition by default and holds off the incoming Daly in August…5th-year senior center Braxston Cave returns as the snapper for field goals…

The Irish need a new holder after the graduation of walk-on Ryan Kavanagh who was nearly flawless in the role. Look for John Goodman to get a shot should he return for a fifth season though a walk-on competitor is ideal as he can spend more time with the snapper-kicker combination…Atkinson will be a four-year return option for the Irish (regardless of his scrimmage status) and Collinsworth will accompany him unless the latter earns a starting role from scrimmage…Farley is the wild-card in the return game as his athleticism demands a look…

Kick return blockers from 2011 that will compete this spring include: Troy Niklas, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo, Josh Atkinson, Cam McDaniel, Luke Massa, Bennett Jackson, Robby Toma, Danny Spond, and Ben Koyack. (Utupo and Niklas excelled at times.) Lo Wood and Ishaq Williams both earned roles at the beginning of the season but ceded their spots as the year progressed.

Seniors Jonas Gray, Steve Filer, walk-on Chris Salvi, David Posluszny and Dan McCarthy were part of the unit last fall – only McCarthy and Posluszny have a potential 5th-year option remaining. Filer was particularly adept at securing key blocks on the move.

Expect 2011 freshmen cornerback Jalen Brown and one of his three classmate linebackers to join the fray: Jarrett Grace, Anthony Rabasa, or (most likely) Ben Councell, whose skill set appears ideal for the role.

Note: The remainder of our position overviews are linked below, though the quarterback position has since added a spring competitor in early enrollee, Gunner Kiel:

Spring Forward: QBs

Spring Forward: Offensive Linemen

Spring Forward: Wide Receivers

Spring Forward: Defensive Linemen

Spring Forward: Running Backs

Spring Forward: Linebackers

Spring Forward: Tight Ends

Spring Forward: Defensive Backs


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