-- Irish head coach Brian Kelly on December 29.
Hyperbole has no place in impartial, reasoned analysis, so its with little hesitation that I type the following:
For the better part of three football seasons, Notre Dame has had the worst punt return unit in the history of civilization.
Whether that statement represents exaggeration can be reasonably argued, but perhaps more vexing considering the resounding success of its kick return brethren in 2011, is that lone ST bright spot dimmed as well.
Though not impossible, its unlikely those units have been augmented by the 15 disparate practices the Irish enjoyed over the last 45 days. The kick return group was plagued by inconsistent (and at times it appeared, indifferent) blocking in front of explosive return man George Atkinson, which in turn led to hesitant running by the sprinter far too often.
Notre Dame plummeted to 83rd nationally in kick return average, or a full 10 yards less per return than No. 4 Kansas State managed, and five yards fewer than Monday's foe Alabama by point of comparison.
The punt return unit often elects not to engage in meaningful blocking schemes, rather, employing "punt safe" (defending vs. a potential fake) with freshman return man Davonte' Neal left to fend for himself. The net result is often a fair catch, 0 yards -- or more problematic -- a bouncing ball as Neal has struggled of late to track its post-punt path.
Kelly's Irish need not win the return battle; they rarely have and yet still managed to finish 12-0 this year and win 20 of their last 23 games. (Oddly, the team's best punt return -- 41 yards by Michael Floyd in last year's Champs Sports Bowl, and it's best kickoff return, a 96-yard touchdown by Atkinson vs. USC -- both occurred in defeat.)
But Notre Dame can't afford to definitively lose the all-important third leg of this title race, either.
When Kelly offered an "all hands on deck" scenario for the contest, he was likely talking about the other half of the Irish "run teams," the coverage units. Starters and sure tacklers such as Zeke Motta, Bennett Jackson, and Troy Niklas could be called upon to cover kick-offs, roles in which each excelled in the past.
Jackson and fellow cornerback Keivarae Russell could earn a role as gunners on punt coverage. Former special teams stalwarts such as LB Dan Fox and WR Daniel Smith would appear in play for either coverage unit as well.
"I'm not going to get into the specifics, all I can tell you is we're going to put all guys on deck in terms of trying to get the best players on the field," said Kelly of his special teams plan. "We don't have to worry about the next week or the week after or them getting too many reps, including ST."
Hidden yards are often the difference in evenly-matched, low-scoring contests. Notre Dame can use its best athletes to limit Alabama's return teams in this phase, and could catch lightning in a bottle with two key blocks on an Atkinson (or Cam McDaniel) kick return to boot.
As for the punt return unit? Well, as 2012 proved, there's nothing wrong with a completed fair catch, either.
(Note: Click the links below for the first three game keys in our "10 for a Title" series):