It is no secret that the special teams performed at a sub-par level in 2004, and for the Irish to be successful this year, this phase of their game must be improved beginning with the opener against Pitt. Coach Polian has the task of turning the specials around and plans to do this with a mixture of veterans and rookies - and looking to the future and not the past.
"I've made no reference to last year," he said. "I wasn't here for last year, and I have no idea what occurred last year. The only thing we are looking at is the future. It's like we don't have a rear-view mirror in the car; we're just looking ahead.
"We've talked about wanting to be a part of the winning here, and we want to run a tight ship on special teams. We want to get a cohesive unit and have those guys feel some pride about themselves for being a part of the kicking game. That's the atmosphere we are trying to create and the guys have bought in, and we are excited about that."
Freshmen David Grimes is one of the young guys who has shown in practice he has the potential to be a weapon as a punt returner. "He's got the ability to scoot a little bit. He's got good speed and is an agile guy and obviously has ball skills," Polian said of Grimes. "So all of those attributes will help him be a punt returner. I feel confident about everybody that has worked back there, not just David."
Junior Chase Anastasio is a veteran returner who is scheduled to see action. Anastasio played in all 12 games in 2004, mainly on special teams where he returned 19 kickoffs for 353 yards but at times appeared to struggle. But that does not phase Polian and he likes what he has seen of the junior's efforts this fall.
"He shows consistency. Chase is not afraid he will hit it up in there," he said. "He has ball skills and we trust him as a person, and we trust his judgment, and we trust all four that are back there. Chase was a guy who hung around all camp and has shown us at the end that he is still there because he just does things right."
Having the ability to field punts at practice in front of a limited audience is one thing, but to stand back there in the spotlight in front of a sold-out stadium is another thing, and the pressure can be great. The special teams coach agrees.
"It doesn't make any difference whether it's David (Grimes) or anybody else back there first game. When the first one goes up you're always nervous about that," Polian said. "It doesn't matter who it is, whether it be a fifth-year senior or a first-year freshmen. No matter how much pressure we put on these guys in practice, you cannot recreate the pressure they will feel on a game day.
"It's part of the deal. Every returner, cornerback, anybody who kind of plays a spot that is out on an island that everyone can see, when it's real it's different for them. And each guy kind of handles it differently.
"We are interested to see how everybody will react to it, not just the punt returners. So we try and create as many high-pressure situations in a matter of a practice week that we can create but ultimately when the lights go on, it is a little bit different."
Coach Polian's responsibilities put him in a unique position as he coaches players, but has the opportunity to observe the techniques used by the highly respected and veteran secondary coach Bill Lewis.
"It's interesting actually being involved in it and then again being able to sit back and watch it evolve. It has been an interesting experience," he stated. "I think what has happened as we've moved on through camp, Coach Lewis has preached about doing the little things right. Yet guys are a little pessimistic at the beginning; then they start to see on film he's right and this is going to make me be better. Then they buy in and once they buy in, you have a chance of getting them better."I think that coach Lewis's background and coach Lewis's history as a head coach, a position coach, and defensive coordinator in the NFL gets their attention immediately. When they see what he has been preaching begins to pay off, they really buy in. By watching film, we can compare what we did on a Tuesday to what we did on a Thursday night and all of a sudden, they can see tangible differences up on the screen. Now they see results and if they trust you to help them get better - and our guys completely trust Coach Lewis - that's a good thing for us."
All coaches tell us that all games are important and some say the most important game is the one they will play on the upcoming Saturday. But there is no doubt season-openers are special and coach Polian gave us his thoughts on the 2005 season opener.
"I'm excited, but to tell you the gosh honest truth, when I was at the University of Buffalo and we were getting ready to play Kent State in front of a crowd of 1,500 people, I was excited," Polian said. "My heart was thumping. If you're coaching, no matter where and when you compete you get pumped up.
"Now, obviously, my first game at Notre Dame and going to Pittsburgh in front of a sold-out house on national television, there is a little bit of adrenalin flowing. I'm excited but, I get excited for all of them and if you didn't you wouldn't be in this business."