Spring Questions: Special Teams

A quartet of questions regarding Notre Dame's specialty units -- a group lightly evaluated, and not necessarily by choice, each spring session.

Below is the tenth of 11 columns previewing head coach Brian Kelly's sixth spring session in South Bend.

The questions are pertinent. The initial answers? Well, they're one man's opinion -- One man using logic and recent history as his guide.

The third phase of the game has often received the short shrift during past spring practice sessions. Annual offensive installation, defensive overhaul (last spring), and position competitions and evaluations take precedent, but before you, the football purist, begin to shake your head in disgust -- a collective "A-HA!" consider the limitations and realities of spring ball in South Bend:

-- Approximately 60 scholarship bodies rather than approximately 85, of which at least five, perhaps 10 annually are fully out of contact or on the mend.
-- Another handful of players that inherently won't be part of special teams in terms of coverage and return units in the fall (quarterbacks, most offensive linemen).
-- Another handful that qualify for the chosen (not inherent) reality that they're too valuable to the offense or the defense to participate on special teams.
-- The annual influx of freshmen -- freshmen not yet on campus -- to join the special teams mix in the fall.
-- A low roof. That's right, any decent punt hits the ceiling in the Loftus Sports Complex, Notre Dame's indoor practice facility.
-- 10 inches of snow. (See low roof comment above)
-- The obvious desire to limit special teams contact and injuries that could occur as a result.
-- No special teams in the Blue Gold Game. (Or "Practice #15")

Part of the above is beyond the staff's control. Part is by choice. Without casting aspersions or placing blame, the reality is, at least when practices are open to the media and through interviews with head coach Brian Kelly, special teams haven't often been a focal point of spring ball.

Will Scott Booker remain the appointed coordinator, the position he's held since the 2012 campaign? Will various coaches be placed in charge of each element of special teams as in season's past (Tony Alford worked with the returners, Bob Diaco the punter, etc.).

Did a hectic off-season -- one beset by February change -- offer Kelly a chance to delve deeply into a varied method of coaching and/or evaluating his approach to special teams?

Not my words, though I agree.

Kelly's post-Pinstripe Bowl comment regarding his kickoff coverage unit (ranked 120th out of 123 teams in 2013) raised a few eyebrows. What the admittance failed to do was greatly raise their level of play -- 111th among 125 in 2014 though the only major (game-altering) blow came from a runaway buffalo and/or running back from LSU, Leonard Fournette, who ran unfettered through the coverage unit for a 100-yard touchdown in the Music City Bowl.

(Last season's unmitigated special teams disaster was the usually automatic snap-hold-kick combination -- and unlike shoddy kickoff coverage or hapless punt return efforts of season's past, this special teams failure could not be overcome.)

Two speciality groups showed promise: the punt return unit posted impact plays in both September and November 2014, and the team's punt coverage squad improved from 84th in '13 to 34th last fall thanks in part to youngsters James Onwualu and C.J. Prosise, plus the addition of veterans such as Matthias Farley to the fray.

The kick return unit (ranked 74th) did little to inspire with its inconsistent -- and at times, indifferent -- blocking efforts up front, though return man Amir Carlisle attacked the job with consistent vigor. (As pointed out by a colleague last October, Carlisle deserves recognition for his efforts when so few of the teammates in front of him executed their jobs simultaneously. What Carlisle lacked in wiggle he made up for in will.)

Can much of the above be addressed on the field rather than in theory this spring? It's a question worth asking at the session's outset and conclusion.

Over the last three seasons -- 39 football games -- Notre Dame has played 26 contests that were won or lost in the fourth quarter. (There was a 7-point margin with ample time remaining in the fourth quarter.)

With that slim of a margin for error, it would appear, at least in adherence to accepted football theory, that special teams gains and losses -- the so-called "hidden yards" -- could make a difference.

The annual, varied failures of the program's specialty units during the five-season Kelly era have likely been overblown by the fan base and under-addressed by the staff -- the latter admitted by Kelly regarding past punt return efforts in the wake of the unit's improvement last fall.

The reality of the forthcoming season, most seasons, is that dominance -- utter destruction of their 12 regular season foes -- isn't likely from Notre Dame. The offense and defense both possess promise, but neither is unimpeachable.

Special teams performances won't often win or lose games (field goal unit notwithstanding), but they can make a difference, and the only way that can be a reality for the Irish is if more of the program's top players are part of the machinery.

Past seasons have included key coverage contributions from freshmen and sophomores such as James Onwualu (2013-14), C.J. Prosise (2013-14), Max Redfield (2013), Jarrett Grace (2012), Troy Niklas (2011), George Atkinson (kickoff coverage included in 2011), Austin Collinsworth and Bennett Jackson (2010-11), and Dan Fox (2010).

Rarely did those players continue in kickoff and punt coverage roles as their careers reached their junior and senior seasons.

For a head coach that constantly evaluates his own approach and performance, this is one to consider.

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