Call them the “Core Four”…in search of more.
Notre Dame special teams coordinator Scott Booker realizes the inherent limitations of training special teams competitors during the spring session in South Bend.
But he’s found ways over the last few shut-in springs to get around them.
Well, most of them.
“There are a lot of things that we can do inside,” said Booker of the 22-year-old Loftus Sports Center, the site of the bulk of Notre Dame’s spring practices over the last three off-seasons.
“You can’t punt; you can’t kickoff. (But) as far as skills and techniques that our punt unit has, or the kickoff coverage unit has, we’ve been working on those skills daily, meeting on them daily.”
Blocking for punt and kick returns (albeit with no actual punt or kickoff) and conversely, release techniques upon the snap or kick are repped each practice in an effort to augment (punt coverage, punt return) or dramatically improve (kickoff coverage, kickoff return) the unit’s efforts over last season.
Key to that end will be the quartet of James Onwualu, C.J. Prosise, Matthias Farley, and 2012 special teams standout, Jarrett Grace.
The Core Four.
“Onwualu is going to be involved in every special teams,” said Booker. “Prosise same thing. Matthias Farley…Jarrett Grace, same thing. There's going to be a core of guys, those older guys aren't going to be off of special teams. There's going to be the core leaders of our special teams. Will they be on all four (*punt/kickoff return and coverage)? I don't know, but they’re going to be core guys.”
Onwualu is arguably the team’s best special teams player over the last two seasons. Prosise earned the squad’s ST Player of the Year award last fall. Farley was a constant on the Irish “*run teams” in both 2012 and last fall.
Grace led the 2012 Irish in special teams tackles as a backup mike linebacker who saw very little scrimmage time in place of starter Manti Te’o.
The presence of veterans was not an option for the Irish specialty units during head coach Brian Kelly’s first few seasons at the helm when a lack of overall depth dissuaded the staff from putting their best football players in harm’s way.
Asked if that has officially changed, Booker noted, “Yes, yes, yes, yes. No doubt.
“There are more guys, but those (four) are going to be great special teams players for us.”
Pressed for more names, and with the knowledge that 2014 special teams standout Drue Tranquill is unavailable due to a knee injury this spring, Booker offered, “I hate to call out guys but a guy like (Devin) Butler, (Greer) Martini, some of those guys.
“Grace was a stalwart on special teams before his injury. I’m excited about all those guys. And there are younger guys. Te’Von Coney, Nyles Morgan, Nick Watkins. It’s going to be an exciting time for those guys. We’re going to get a lot of speed on the field and guys that can compete. Compete on special teams.”
Cold, windy, wet and/or snow-filled springs have plagued South Bend over three of the last four years. (Not 2012, and not during Brian Kelly’s first season at the helm, 2010, when nearly all of spring practice was outside.)
As a result, Notre Dame’s punt and kickoff return candidates don’t receive much live work. Nor does the punter.
The roof above Meyo Field inside the Loftus Center won’t allow it.
“We do a lot of evaluating with punting as far as the process,” said Booker. “Catch, stick, and hold. That’s the progression for the punter. We have an on-field camera on the punter. He’s punting it, but it goes up into the roof. You can know how good a punt is going to be without seeing it turn over. We’re able to see his process and footwork with the on-field camera.
“I’m pleased with where Tyler (Newsome) is right now,” Booker said of the team’s lone scholarship punter. “He has a lot of God-given ability. He’s six-foot-two and long-levered. We asked him to work on some things this winter without us, he did that, and the first time we were outside (April 1) I was pleased with what we saw.”
Newsome is currently the team’s top kicker (former preferred walk-on John Chereson is the spring backup), but the starting job is likely to be won by incoming kicker Justin Yoon, the nation’s best prep prospect in 2015.
“Tyler’s best attribute going forward is going to be punting,” said Booker. “He’ll be focused more on punting to be the best he can be. He’s building mechanics to build on his field goal kicking too, but his best asset punting (and) to be our starting punter against Texas.”
As for who might return punts or kickoffs, there’s a good chance it will be the status quo, though at least one incoming freshmen will receive a long look.
“Greg Bryant returned the last half of the year at punt and Amir Carlisle was our main kick returner all year unless he was injured,” said Booker. “Those guys are definitely front-runners, but we have some other guys that are going to be involved, you’ll see Will Fuller back there, and then there are some freshmen.”
Asked if one of those rookies might be the elusive C.J. Sanders, Booker offered, “Yeah. Have you seen his high school film? Yeah, yeah.
“We love what (Sanders) did against high school players. It’s a different world here. You’re fielding a punt, 80,000 people, NBC, under the lights, all that stuff. A different environment, but I’m excited to see what some of the freshmen can do, rising to the occasion.”
Whoever wins the lead kick returner role will have “off” return man to work with. For the first time since the 2011 season, it won’t be Cam McDaniel.
“We lost our off-returner, you can’ t underestimate what Cam McDaniel did for that team,” said Booker. “First with George Atkinson. He got a lot of big returns and a lot of it was due to Cam doing a great job on the backside clearing color.
“That position is wide open. You have a guy like C.J. Prosise that can run, field kickoffs and block as well. You have guys like Tarean (Folston). Excited to see them in those positions as off-returner.”
And the results to follow.