2012 Kick Return TeamWhat We Know: The Irish boast one of the nation's best in George Atkinson and all but two of the team's starters return to open lanes (Steve Filer and Jonas Gray both graduated).
What We Think We Know: That the position will be a strength for years to come and that Atkinson should remain in the role throughout the season (for meaningful returns), no matter how many carries he earns at running back…That incoming freshman Davonte Neal and transfer Amir Carlisle could capably spell Atkinson when necessary.
What We Hope to be True: That Troy Niklas, Dan McCarthy, Chris Salvi, Josh Atkinson, Kendall Moore, Justin Utupo, and a host of newcomers will provide the same dedicated, consistent, occasional knockout punches as Atkinson's chief blockers and again when the team needs it most (as the group did vs. national powers MSU and USC last fall).
Unit's Current Standing: Strength, potentially on a national level
2012 Punt Return TeamWhat We Know: That the only punt returner to run forward over the last 11 football games Notre Dame has played is now in the NFL…and he did so once with the benefit of 2-3 illegal blocks somehow missed by the officials.
What We Think We Know: That it can't be any worse than it was in 2010, when the Irish ranked 100th nationally, or last year (112th, up from last of 120 after a 41-yard return by Michael Floyd in the bowl loss).
What We Hope to be True: That incoming freshmen Davonte Neal or C.J. Prosise can step in and become a difference-maker…That the punt return team will execute its blocking assignments markedly better than it has during the first two seasons of the Kelly era…That the 10 blockers in front of the return man will actually impede a defender's progress this season…That the team won't again concede the aspect of the game as a lost cause by mid-season 2012.
Unit's Current Standing: An all-time weakness and a point of media and fan ridicule for consecutive seasons. It can't be worse, unless more fair catches are fumbled this season.
2012 Kick/Punt Coverage UnitsWhat We Know: That the unit's best player, Austin Collinsworth, is out for the season, and that its best player from 2010, Bennett Jackson, likely can't compete on the unit this fall due to full-time cornerback duties.
What We Think We Know: That Josh Atkinson (and again potentially George, as he did last fall), a sampling of incoming freshman, Chris Salvi, Troy Niklas, Danny Spond, plus a starter or two will combine to limit foes from damaging returns this fall…That there's enough team speed and open-field tackling ability to handle some of the best the nation has to offer in 2012.
What We Hope to be True: That after a standout effort in kick coverage (17th nationally) and punt coverage (one team registered a return for more than 4 yards) in 2010, the collective slip by both units last fall (punt or kickoff returns by USF, Michigan, USC, and FSU each contributed to close defeats) was an aberration.
Unit's Current Standing: Question Mark: a pair of nationally tough groups in 2008, the units failed throughout 2009 (the former regime), once in defeat in 2010 (vs Tulsa), and at four key times in losses last year.
2012 Field Goal Kickers and PuntersWhat We Know: That the field goal competition between Kyle Brindza and Nick Tausch will be decided in August camp…That Ben Turk is the unquestioned punter for his senior season.
What We Think We Know: That Tausch, 15 for 18 in his career to date, should be solid at worst as a field goal kicker…That Turk is over his (admitted) mental "yips" punting in front of raucous crowds.
What We Hope to be True: That Brindza can handle both duties, place-kicker and punter, as a junior in 2013 when Tausch and Turk graduate (Tausch could apply for a 5th season following 2012).
Unit's Current Standing: With rare exceptions, collegiate kickers and punters are a day-by-day proposition.
2012 ST StaffWhat We Know: That the staff is dividing its responsibilities across the board, with tight ends coach Scott Booker the new special teams coordinator.
What We Think We Know: Nothing…the division of labor is one of two tacts that Kelly could have employed to fix his faulty specialty units. If the Irish improve across the board, you'll likely see no changes in approach in 2013. If the special teams in any way resemble the units from 2011, a dedicated special teams coach might be on tap for next season.
What We Hope to be True: That the staff's new special teams job shares (each staff member will oversee a particular special teams unit) will work better than most anticipate, and that a dedicated special teams coordinator is not a necessary position on the staff as it was prior to the Kelly regime.
Unit's Current Standing: Weakness