First rate: Special teams

With 33 kickoff returns last season, Notre Dame’s Amir Carlisle represents the only returning starter among the specialists/return men from the 2014 season.

Ranking special teams is an all-encompassing analysis with various aspects in play, from coverage to returns to placekicks to punting. While Notre Dame felt secure as long as the sometimes-erratic Kyle Brindza was around, the Irish will rely heavily on unproven players at key positions this fall.

There do not appear to be many standouts among kickers and punters on the Irish slate. But Pittsburgh boasts a real weapon in both aspects with receiver Tyler Boyd serving as a threat when the Panthers have the football and the opposition is kicking it to them. USC’s Adoree’ Jackson also has big-play capability.

Boston College and Temple had the most complete special teams in ’14 among teams on Notre Dame’s ’15 schedule.

13) Texas (K-Nick Rose)
The Longhorns put one of the most abysmal special teams units on the field in ’14. The kick coverage team ranked 128th in the country – last – while sitting 98th and 99th in punt coverage and kickoff returns respectively while barely managing to rank in the upper half (61st) in punt returns. The Longhorns could use a spark returning kicks from Daje Johnson (24.5 ypr.). Rose has a strong leg – as evidenced by his 51-yard field goal last fall, and 49- and 52-yarders in the spring game -- but his accuracy (14-of 21) can be shaky.

12) Navy (K-Austin Grebe)
A bit surprising to see Navy rank so low in kick (98th) and punt coverage (124th); not as surprising for the kick return (76th) and punt return (126th) units to be challenged. The Midshipmen are seeking answers at kicker where Nick Sloan (3-of-8 FGs) appears to have lost his job to Grebe, who made all six of his field-goal attempts last year. Other key losses include punter Pablo Beltran (44.2), a four-year starter, and long-snapper Joe Cardona, a fifth-round draft choice of the New England Patriots.

11) Notre Dame (KR-Amir Carlisle)
He was far from automatic (70.4 percent), but K/P Kyle Brindza made 57 field goals in his final three years with the Irish while averaging a solid 41.3 yards per punt. Now freshman kicker Justin Yoon takes over, moving past Tyler Newsome before even arriving on campus. Newsome will handle the punting. The Irish have an experienced if not game-breaking KR in Carlisle, but they’ll have to find a replacement at PR with the departure of Cody Riggs, who ranked 47th nationally at 7.3 yards per return. WR Will Fuller is an enticing option. The Irish were lacking covering kickoffs (114th), but did a solid job on punt coverage (33rd), although that was largely due to Brindza’s hang time, which Newsome will have difficulty matching.

10) Massachusetts (KR-Khary Bailey-Smith, PR-Trey Dudley Giles)
Special teams coordinator Ted Daisher lost his job despite the fact the Minutemen had the fifth best overall coverage/return units among Notre Dame and the teams on its 2015 schedule. The greatest shortcoming was on punt returns with UMass ranking 103rd. Still, the Minutemen have threats on kick (Bailey-Smith 24.5 ypr.) and punt (Dudley-Giles 8.0 ypr.) returns. Blake Lucas has seniority at kicker, but he may be passed by frosh Michael Caggiano. Junior Logan Laurent will punt after Laurent and Blake Lucas were a combined 6-of-10 on FGs with six missed extra points. Laurent should be an upgrade at punter over graduated Brian McDonald (37.7 avg.).

9) Wake Forest (K-Mike Weaver, P-Alex Kinal)
When you average 1.25 yards per carry and score just four rushing touchdowns in 12 games, your punter is going to get plenty of work. Kinal, an Aussie, has punted an incredible 262 times the last three years – an average of 87.3 per season. And yet despite 81 punts in ’14, Kinal averaged an impressive 43.6 yards per attempt and was one of just three FBS punters not to have a touchback. Weaver made his first 10 FGs last year, but just 5-of-9 after that. He did, however, make two FGs in OT to help notch the Demon Deacons’ only ACC victory of the season against Virginia Tech. Wake Forest ranked among the nation’s top 60 in kick coverage, punt coverage and punt returns.

8) Clemson (K-Ammon Lakip, KR-T.J. Green, PR-Germone Hopper)
For all of the athletic ability that filters to Clemson, it’s hard to believe the Tigers were 100th in punt returns and 115th on kickoff returns. There’s promise with KR Green (21.2 avg.) and PR Hopper. Both coverage units ranked among the nation’s top 50. Lakip was a solid 21-of-28 on FGs, but P Andy Teasdall enters the 2015 season with just three career attempts.

7) Virginia (K-Ian Frye)
There’s great potential for a dynamic special teams season ahead for the Cavaliers. Lou Groza semi-finalist and second-team all-ACC Frye was 22-of-27 on FGs, and three of his misses were from 50 yards or more while making each of his attempts from 45 yards or less. Taquan Mizzell could end up returning punts and kickoffs after a solid season at the latter (23.1 yard per kickoff return). Punt coverage (102nd) was lacking.

6) Georgia Tech (K-Harrison Butker, P-Ryan Rodwell, KR/PR-Jamal Golden)
The Yellow Jackets ranked among the nation’s top 60 in punt coverage, kickoff returns and punt returns in ’14. They’re looking for KR/PR Golden to return to 2012 form when he was among the nation’s top 10 in both categories before a shoulder injury slowed his pace. Butker came up huge in Georgia Tech’s double-overtime victory over Georgia when he drilled a 53-yard FG in double-overtime. But he was just 6-of-13 from 30 yards or longer and 11-of-18 overall. He missed 5-of-7 from 30-to-39. Rodwell was a solid if unspectacular 40.2 yards per his 32 punts.

5) Temple (P-Alex Starzyk)
A sign of solid coaching among the non-Power 5 conferences is consistent special teams, and HC Matt Rhule has the Owls pointed in the right direction. They were among the nation’s top 30 in kick coverage, punt coverage and punt returns, including a No. 5 ranking defending punts (2.95 yards per return). Field goals have been a bit of an adventure in recent years for the Owls. Now the job falls to senior Tyler Mayes, who couldn’t unseat Austin Jones, despite hitting just 10-of-16 FGs from 40 or less. Starzyk (38.4 yards per punt) must improve.

4) USC (P-Kris Albarado, KR-Adoree’ Jackson)
For the first time since early in the 2011 season, the Trojans will not have Andre Heidari handling kicks. The Trojans were mostly atrocious covering kickoffs (98th) and punts (124th) last year. But sophomore Jackson has the potential to be as dynamic as Nelson Agholor (19th on PRs at 10.37 ypr.). Jackson averaged 29.7 yards per kickoff return with a pair of TDs in ’14. Albarado is solid at punter (41.4-yard avg.). Matt Boermeester is the frontrunner to replace Heidari.

3) Stanford (KR/PR-Christian McCaffrey)
The Cardinal lost a ton of key special teams personnel with the departure of Jordan Williamson and Ben Rhyne at kicker and punter respectively, and sensational return man Ty Montgomery. But until proven otherwise, Stanford deserves this high ranking with the third best special teams in ’14 among teams on Notre Dame’s ’15 schedule. Much to prove, however, for Conrad Ukropina (2-of-4 FGs) at kicker and Alex Robinson at punter. Freshman Jake Bailey will contend for both jobs, as will McCaffrey on punt and kick returns.

2) Pittsburgh (K-Chris Blewitt, P-Ryan Winslow, KR/PR-Tyler Boyd)
There’s no more dangerous return man on Notre Dame’s schedule than the Panthers’ Tyler Boyd, who not only lights it up at receiver, but on kickoff (27.6-yard avg.) and punt returns (10.1). Boyd ranked 11th nationally on KRs and 22nd on PRs. The veteran Blewitt made 16-of-21 FGs while Winslow punted for an average of 40.1. The Panthers ranked among the nation’s top 40 on both kickoff and punt coverage.

1) Boston College (K-Mike Knoll, P-Alex Howell, KR-Myles Willis, PR-Sherman Alston)
Once again, another reminder that HC Steve Addazio has all the bases covered. Boston College ranks No. 1 on the list of Notre Dame’s 2015 opponents in the four major categories. The Eagles were No. 4 in kick returns, No. 18 in kickoff coverage, No. 47 in punt coverage and No. 64 in punt returns in ‘14. Placekicks were an issue last year as three kickers missed a combined eight extra points, including the potential tying kick in overtime against Penn State in the Pinstripe bowl. A combination of Knoll (3-of-4 FGs) and Howell (5-of-11) will piece it together. Howell was a solid 42.5 yards per punt. The Eagles boast big-play potential on returns with Willis and Alston.

Here is the running tally:

1. USC (22--QB 1st, RB 3rd, WR 3rd, OL 1st, DL 5th, LB 2nd, DB 3rd, ST 4th)
2. Notre Dame (34 -- QB 7th, RB 2nd, WR 2nd, OL 3rd, DL 6th, LB 1st, DB 2nd, ST 11th)
3. Clemson (38 -- QB 4th, RB 6th, WR 1st, OL 5th, DL 2nd, LB 7th, DB 5th, ST 8th)
4t. Stanford (47 -- QB 5th, RB 4th, WR 6th, OL 2nd, DL 11th, LB 3rd, DB 13th, ST 3rd)
4t. Pittsburgh (47 -- QB 6th, RB 1st, WR 5th, OL 7th, DL 8th, LB 9th, DB 9th, ST 2nd)
6. Georgia Tech (51 -- QB 2nd, RB 8th, WR 13th, OL 4th, DL 7th, LB 10th, DB 1st, ST 6th)
7. Boston College (59 -- QB 13th, RB 5th, WR 10th, OL 11th, DL 1st, LB 6th, DB 12th, ST 1st)
8. Texas (65 -- QB 10th, RB 7th, WR 8th, OL 8th, DL 3rd, LB 12th, DB 4th, ST 13th)
9. Virginia (68 -- QB 12th, RB 10th, WR 7th, OL 9th, DL 4th, LB 11th), DB 8th, ST 7th)
10. UMass (71 -- QB 8th, RB 11th, WR 4th, OL 6th, DL 13th, LB 8th, DB 11th, ST 10th)
11. Temple (72 -- QB 11th, RB 12th, WR 11th, OL 12th, DL 10th, LB 5th, DB 6th, ST 5th)
12. Wake Forest 76 -- QB 9th, RB 13th, WR 9th, OL 13th, 9th, LB 4th, DB 10th, ST 9th)
13. Navy (78 -- QB 3rd, RB 9th, WR 12th, OL 10th, DL 12th, LB 13th, DB 7th, ST 12th)

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