Questions to be Answered: Part VI

The last article in our series will deal with special teams. Special teams are a very large part of the game that a lot of fans tend to forget about. Notre Dame will be replacing both their kicker and punter in 2006, and while the special teams definitely improved under first-year coach Brian Polian's tutelage, there is still some room for improvement.

Close your eyes and start to dream. Dream the Irish are playing the Trojans in the Coliseum in 2006 and just scored to tie the game with :06 seconds left to go in the game. The only thing standing in the way of victory is an extra point and the Irish stopping yet another dangerous Trojan return man.

It's a very possible scenario in 2006, and the Irish will have a new kicker kicking in both situations.

I don't think Irish fans will truly appreciate the value of D.J. Fitzpatrick until this season. That's not to say I think those replacing him will fail, but there will be bumps in the road, and those bumps could come at the worst possible time.

Losing Fitzpatrick will be tough to overcome as he was both the punter and the kicker—something rare in college football. It's likely rare because no college coach wants to be put in a position to replace both their kicker and punter in the same season.

Head coach Charlie Weis and Polian will have options for 2006. Junior Carl Gioia will likely get the first look as a possible replacement for Fitzpatrick as a field goal kicker. Gioia has been used as the Irish kickoff man as well, but was replaced by Fitzpatrick later in the season—most likely due to lack of distance on his kicks.

Gioia has made his only field goal attempt, a 29-yard field goal against Stanford, and his only extra point attempt in his career. His kicks seem to be very accurate, but he doesn't have the strongest leg in history. However, he should be a solid choice to replace Fitzpatrick nonetheless.

Junior Craig Cardillo is another option for Weis and Polian, but Cardillo hasn't had any experiencing kicking as of yet for the Irish. Junior Bobby Renkes is another option, but like Cardillo, he also hasn't seen any action in his career.

The Irish have two kickers reporting this fall. Scholarship kicker Ryan Burkhart is said to have the leg the Irish have been missing and should have the opportunity to at least grab the kickoff duties in 2006. Burkhart struggled in his senior season with field goals, connecting on only 10-of-20 attempts, but all of his misses were outside of 40 yards. He'll need to be more accurate in 2006 to grab the field goal and extra point kicking duties.

Walk-on kicker Tamba Samba will also try to get into the mix. The Ben Davis high school (Indianapolis, Ind.) is said to be coming on a soccer scholarship but will also tryout for kicking duties. Samba doesn't quite have the leg of Burkhart but is considered a solid kicking prospect.

The punting situation should also be an interesting battle. Junior Geoff Price likely has the inside track for the punting position. Price has a big leg but has struggled with inconsistency in his career. The senior-to-be has two career punts for the Irish and has averaged 44 yards per punt.

Another walk-on, incoming freshman Eric Maust, will also get a shot at the punting duties. Maust came by the way of the baseball team and is quite the athlete. As a four-year starter for his high school team at quarterback, Maust picked up punting this year and averaged 40 yards per punt. Maust is a top pitching prospect for Irish baseball coach Paul Mainieri, but he'll also try to walk-on the Irish football team as well.

While Weis and Polian have plenty of options to replace Fitzpatrick, none have really stood out as clear cut leaders for either position. Weis must feel pretty confident in either Price or Maust or he would've likely searched for more options at punter.

There are a lot of possibilities at kicker, and one has to hope that at least one pans out. Gioia has been pretty consistent and might be the guy inside 40 yards for field goals and extra points. While these battles likely won't be exciting to follow for the fans, they will be very important if the Irish want to challenge for a BCS bid again in 2006.

Besides kicking and punting, the Irish could also improve in some other areas of special teams.

Kickoff returns were below average in 2005. The Irish ranked No. 89 in the nation in kickoff returns averaging just 19 yards per return. Freshmen D.J. Hord and David Grimes were the main return men throughout the year, and both showed glimpses of being quality return men. Unfortunately they didn't have the best blocking in front of them most times and that will need to improve in 2005. I wouldn't be surprised to see others tried in kickoff return duties next season as well. Freshman George West will likely get a long look this spring.

The Irish were very good in punt returns, ranking No. 12 in the country with two returns for touchdowns, thanks to senior-to-be Tom Zbikowski. I don't think there will be any tinkering here other than trying to improve on blocking. I'm going to guess Weis was thankful he finally gave into Zbikowski's pleading for a chance.

Kickoff return defense was also below average with the Irish ranking No. 72 in the country with one return for a touchdown. Kickoff distance usually has a lot to do with this statistic, and the Irish haven't had a guy who can consistently kick the ball into the end zone. The more opportunities you give a team, the more chances they have to hurt you. Hopefully someone (Burkhart) can step in and get the ball in the end zone more frequently. Still, we did see considerable improvement over the previous year in this department.

Lastly, punt return defense was pretty good as well. The Irish finished ranked No. 22 in the country, allowing just 6.44 yards per return and zero touchdowns. The Irish did do a very solid job in the area and hopefully that trend will continue.

Like any good team, your goal should be to finish in the top 10 in all of these categories. Unfortunately, the Irish have a ways to go in kick returns and kickoff coverage, and hopefully they can work on solving this problem in the spring.

If nothing else, we can be assured that there is a high priority place on special teams by this coaching staff, and like everything else, it will take a little time to get back to the very top of college football in special teams play.

Irish fans will someone can come in and replace Fitzpatrick in both his punting and kicking duties, otherwise they might be reminded just how important special teams are in the outcome of any game.


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