First year Irish coach Brian Polian is in charge of the special teams and he likes the progress that has been made from fall camp and now heading into the third game of the season. Irish Eyes talked with Polian as the Irish wrapped up preparations for this week's game against the Michigan State Spartans.
"We were excited about our effort last week, we really were," Polian stated. "A lot of the credit goes to the kids. It's funny for me to come in here on Thursdays because last week is so far away for me – from Sunday night on we have been focused on (Michigan) State and we're talking about keeping that intensity level and that speed with which we played. We've set a good bar and now we need to keep reaching that bar.
"We have been pleased with our efforts, and there are always things to clean up, always. There is competition, and it is good to see. There have been guys working their butts off, both our base teams and the guys we have put over on the look teams, and we say we're looking for you to cut loose and see some speed and effort and that's been good too. It's been encouraging and there are any number of people who can be plugged into spots that we would feel comfortable with."
"One of the great things about being the special teams coach is that I get to deal with guys on both sides of the ball." Polian continued. "I really get to know our football team, and we have dealt with those kids individually from the first day of training camp on, so you begin to know kids on both sides of the ball. You start to piece guys in spots where you think their athleticism will fit and their body-type fits, and you like their demeanor, so you try to fit the pieces in the right holes. You do that through training camp, and there is still a little bit of that going on through the season. You just try and do the best you can, putting people in the right places."
Special teams may be a quick way to get on the field and see action, but not all players are cut out for these duties. According to the first-year Irish coach, there are both physical and mental aspects of being a special team player.
"I do think it takes a different kind of guy," Polian said. "We talk about wanting guys, kind of a catch phrase Coach Minter uses, a one-play warrior. There is no second down; we get one shot to do it right and it takes a certain kind of guy who has that level of responsibility and a guy that you can trust and that you know is going to get one shot at it and he is going to do it right. And that is something we really talk about with our guys.
"Especially when you're protecting your kicker – field goal protection, punt – there is no room for error, so you have to put guys out there that you trust, and that's a big component. Sure the physical part is very important, but you have to be able to trust the guys that are going to do the right things every time you put them out there. If you make a mistake on offense and you get tackled in the backfield, it is second and fifteen. If you make a mistake on defense and they make a first down, hopefully you have ground to stand on to fight again. If you make a big mistake on special teams, it usually changes the tide of the game. So you try to build esprit de corps with them and say, hey, it's called special teams for a reason, and it takes special guys to play on special teams and that is something we try and stress here."
Although Polian is in charge of special teams, he shares the responsibility of determining which players get on the field.
"It's not just me, everybody on the staff is involved," he said. "Coach Parmalee is really involved in all the stuff and I'm just kind of the ring leader. That's one of the fun things about coaching it (special teams) is that one day you're working on punts and punt returns and the next day, kick-off and kick-off returns, and the mentality completely changes. I think one of the things we have done well is, even though we are getting into game planning as teams and trying to match up versus certain looks, we have done a good job of still working on fundamental things; even if it is just five minutes at the end of practice.
"We are still working on the base fundamentals that help you win football games instead of spending all our time on X's and O's. I think our football team in general does a good job of that. Just because we are in the season now and go week-by-week, opponent-to-opponent, we are not forgetting the things that help you win football games."
The Irish special teams have shown marked improvement in the first two games of the season and Polian said this week's practice has focused on, "The same things, tempo, we want to play fast and we want to make sure that we are sound in all of our schemes, that we're protecting the football on our return teams, that we're covering the field on our coverage teams.
"We feel our guys for the first two weeks have brought intensity to it, focus to it, and they really have tried to play fast. We need to continue to do that because at Notre Dame, every week is a new challenge as there is no easy game on our schedule. You come in Sunday and grade the film and Sunday night you are looking at the next opponent. So you say, here we go again, we have to get the tempo and speed jacked up again this week. That's been the focus for us this week on special teams."