Q&A: Special Teams

We had questions, now we have the answers. At least most of them. Irisheyes.com takes a position-by-position look, Q&A style, at the 2012 season. The questions of August camp answered by the events of the 2012 season, with crucial queries still remaining for the January 7 title tilt vs. the Crimson Tide.

Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish defensive line.

Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish linebackers.

Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish defensive backs.

Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish quarterbacks.

Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish running backs.

Click here for our Q&A regarding the Irish receivers and tight ends.

Click here for our Q&A regarding Notre Dame's offensive line.

Special Teams

In total, the six major special teams units of 2012 performed at a higher level than did the sub par units of 2011. But by no reasonable measure could the Irish specialty units be categorized as a strength.

Camp Questions: Who would serve as the team's placekicker after the graduation of David Ruffer? Could the Irish find a punt returner after a wasted 2011 season at the position/position group? Could Notre Dame's blockers make physical contact with potential tacklers to in any way change their collective paths toward the return man? Could George Atkinson have another big year as a kick returner despite new kickoff rules? Could the Irish coverage units improve after a few costly breakdowns in 2011? Would senior punter Ben Turk finally establish consistency in his fourth season as a starter? Could the Irish avoid bad punt and field goal snaps that crept into early season games of 2011? Would head coach Brian Kelly place a renewed emphasis on special teams after the collective debacle of 2011?

The season's answers

The season's numbers show the following: Kick Return (83rd), Punt Return (115th), Kick Coverage (79th), Punt Coverage (49th), Field Goals Made (3rd), Field Goal Percentage/Min 10 (47th) Touchbacks (T-57th), Net Punting (38th).

Notre Dame's most dangerous weapon from 2011 -- George Atkinson and his kick return crew -- was negated by the NCAA's new rules (kicks originating five yards closer at the 35) and by a lack of blocking up front. Atkinson had just two returns of impact, one vs. USC to help set up the game-clinching field goal. More troubling, the kick coverage unit was far worse than most opponents faced though the punt coverage team was likely better than statistically indicated, allowing just two returns of value through 12 games.

Punter Ben Turk had his best season, ranking as a reliable punter with but one shank in competitive action. Kyle Brindza took the starting place-kicker job from Nick Tausch after the latter suffered another leg injury, limiting his ability to compete after the season opener in Dublin. Brindza set a program record with 23 successful field goals including clutch kicks vs. Purdue, Michigan State, Stanford, Oklahoma, Pittsburgh, and USC. Those outweigh his eight misses, though the number is the most by an Irish kicker since Brandon Walker missed 10 in 2008.

More disconcerting was Brindza's inconsistent power on kickoffs. The extended break should help the sophomore who has battled a tired leg in consecutive Novembers.

The team's punt return "efforts" continued to be anything but special, with Davonte' Neal regressing in his tracking of punts as the season progressed and his blockers barely serving as speed bumps to oncoming tacklers.

Season Takeaway: You can apparently win at the highest level with sub-standard special teams play. Imagine how much easier it might be if the units wholly improved?

BCS Championship Questions

Can Brindza answer the bell and hit three of four field goals? four of five? or at least every kick inside 43 yards in what could become a field goal fest with two incredible red zone defenses at play? Can Ben Turk, a punter who once admitted he was nervous kicking in front of a full stadium, continue to provide quality field position for the Irish without a costly shank, something that plagued him for the majority of his career? Will George Atkinson provide a spark as a kick return man? Could backup Cam McDanield -- more consistent in his ability to make open-field tacklers miss -- get the call?

Can the Irish punt return team stay out of its own way and complete successful fair catches with no hidden yardage lost (or punts muffed?) Could it possibly gain positive yards as did the unit with Michael Floyd's 41-yard burst in last year's Champs Sports Bowl? (That after eight straight games without a return attempt.) Can the Irish kick and punt coverage units raise their level of play to meet the speed of Alabama's return units? (The Crimson Tide gain eight more yards per punt return and five more per kickoff return.)

Will special teams decide a close game, and in such an instance, could any impartial observer favor the otherwise solid Irish?

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