Look Ahead: Coverage Units

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

Our last in a series of 10 looks at Notre Dame's position groups with a handful of recruiting and 5th-year options still pending.

Specialists – Coverage

The units struggled intermittently with the punt coverage group's errors contributing in close losses to USF (the Bulls used a 34-yard return to the ND 40 to set up a field goal and 17-0 lead) and at Michigan (21-yard return to the UM 42 that six plays later produced a go-ahead touchdown late in the 4th Quarter) to start the season.

USC also hit the punt coverage team for a 26-yard gain (another TD seven snaps later). The unit finished 93rd nationally though it only covered 15 live punts, tied for 30th fewest nationally.

The final numbers show a kick coverage group in the back of the pack though that unit was much more trustworthy kick-to-kick than its #77 ranking indicates. Florida State burned the kick coverage team with a 77-yard sprint to set up a field goal in the 3rd Quarter of Notre Dame's 18-14 Champs Sports Bowl defeat. Wake Forest also used a 59-yard burst to set up a field goal and 10-3 lead in Winston-Salem.

Departing: Kick and/or punt coverage regulars Chris Salvi (senior walk-on), Steve Filer, Gary Gray, Robert Blanton, Patrick Coughlin (walk-on). 5th-year senior Andrew Nuss served as one of the trio of protectors for Ben Turk in Notre Dame's spread-punt formation. Senior LB David Posluszny (4 ST tackles) is not expected to return for a 5th-season though that's not yet official with (at least) three roster spots remaining before National Signing Day.

Coverage Starters Returning: Austin Collinsworth (15 tackles), Troy Niklas (10), George Atkinson (8), Bennett Jackson (7), Kendall Moore (3), Jamoris Slaughter (3), Danny Spond (6), Josh Atkinson and Lo Wood.

  • Long-snapper Jordan Cowart – Was the team's starting long-snapper on punts in 2009, playing in every game with the exception of Navy during which Notre Dame didn't punt in a 23-21 defeat. Started all 13 games for first-year head coach Brian Kelly in 2010 then the first five last year before breaking his hand during an on field scuffle at Purdue. Cowart returned following a four-game absence, winning back the starting role from Ryan Kavanagh to snap in the final four outings. He'll likely win the 2012 role with incoming freshman Scott Daly stepping into the role in 2013.

  • Punter Ben Turk – Averaged 40.3 yards per punt with 18 dropped inside the opponents' 20-yard line (and four touchbacks). Turk had five boots in excess of 50 yards and did not have a punt blocked (and has not in three seasons). After a horrid start, Turk evolved into a quality punter as a true junior last fall. The next step is 13 games of solid punting as the three-year starter has shown flashes in each of his previous three seasons while also enduring intermittent struggles.

  • Kick-off Specialist Kyle Brindza – Averaged 65.3 yards per boot (for the sake of reference, a yard more than did David Ruffer in the role last season) with 12 touchbacks and four kicks out of bounds, a penalty which results in ball placement at the ND 40-yard line. Of note: four kicks out of bounds is at least three too many. Expect the talented Brindza to eradicate that issue from his kickoffs next fall.

Potential 5th-year returnee Dan McCarthy (6 ST tackles) would be counted upon heavily for both coverage units should he earn an extra season in South Bend. Junior-to-be Daniel Smith debuted in kick coverage at mid-season 2010 as a true freshman and also started vs. Navy last fall in the same role. He fought through a nagging leg injury over the last calendar year and will be a key player to watch this spring.

Incoming Spring Competitors: Early enrollee Tee Shepard will get an immediate look for the punt and kick coverage units (as well as the punt return team as an outside blocker/cornerback). An ample supply of 2011 freshmen withheld from action will receive a chance to emerge as coverage specialists in the spring: Ben Councell (LB), Jarrett Grace (LB), Jalen Brown (CB) headline the untested group with Matthias Farley (WR), a former high school safety, also a likely competitor.

Verbal pledges and probable coverage competitors such as Nick Baratti, Elijah Shumate, C.J. Prosise, John Turner, and LS Scott Daly don't arrive on campus until the summer session begins in late June.

Hunches/Observations

Collinsworth has proven to be the best coverage specialist in the 2010 class, something no one would have predicted after Bennett Jackson's dominant freshman season ('10) that included dominant kick coverage efforts in wins vs. both Purdue and Miami to start and end the season…Jackson's play tailed off considerably, especially in punt coverage where he often whiffed in space as the gunner with each miss leading to long gains by the opponents (USF, UM, USC, and FSU)…Quick prediction: Jackson's play in coverage improves if he wins the starting boundary cornerback role – it won't if he's beaten out by an underclassmen…

Niklas' 6'6"-plus, 250-pound frame is a sight to behold covering a kickoff, but no specialist improved more as the season progressed. Dubbed ‘Hercules' by future team captain Manti Te'o, Niklas ranked second with 10 ST tackles and doubled as one of the three best kick return blockers by season's end…Niklas is likely to take on an increased role from scrimmage next season, possibly limiting his kick coverage opportunities in 2012 and certainly in 2013-14…

Notre Dame allowed two long kickoff returns in its final five games. If not for an Atkinson brother, both would have resulted in touchdowns instead of the field goals that ensued as Josh caught Wake Forest return man Lovell Jackson after 59 yards and George ran down Seminoles speedster Lamarcus Joyner after 77…The pair will star on the unit for at least the next two seasons with George of course doubling as the chief kick returner (less-heralded Josh has a better chance at earning a starting scrimmage spot at the now wide-open cornerback position)…The Bros. Atkinson were lauded by both subscribers and staff of this site as recruiting steals of 2011 and they're on track to make good on those predictions…

Expected starting safeties Jamoris Slaughter and Zeke Motta will likely see their coverage roles reduced in 2012; look for 2011 freshman Jalen Brown and his classmate Eilar Hardy to step into those roles by late-September if not sooner…

My early predictions for the best newcomer to the coverage units in 2012? Either 2011 LB Ben Councell or 2012 verbal pledge Elijah Shumate…

Looking for a challenger to Austin Collinsworth's Special Teams Player of the Year Crown for 2012? How about junior-to-be Danny Spond, who needs only to stay healthy over the course of a season to blossom in multiple specialty roles…

Note: Our final position preview will examine the still-evolving coaching staff machinations, pending the expected hiring of offensive line coach Harry Hiestand (Tennessee).

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