Open Spots on Special Teams

Head coach Charlie Weis said last season the quickest way to turnaround a team was on special teams. There were some positives in this area of the game in 2005. Tom Zbikowski's 60-yard punt return for a score against USC to give Notre Dame the lead has to be near the top of the list.

An example of the negatives: two missed field goals, a missed extra point and a 87-yard kickoff return for a touchdown that almost cost the Irish the contest against Stanford and a shot at a huge payday in a BCS bowl.

With a lot riding on the line in 2006, a blown opportunity on special teams could be the difference in a year where the words "national title contenders" are easily being thrown around. The first spot to fill is the kicking duties. Gone is D.J. Fitzpatrick, who handled these duties along with the punting job. Fitzpatrick started out the year connecting on his first 9-of-11 kicks but missed four of his last eight chances, including a few critical misses in the Cardinal contest that turned the game into a nailbiter.

Senior Carl Gioia got the first crack in spring ball. But in the one practice the media observed, he missed several kicks from reasonable distances. In the Blue-Gold game, it didn't get much better. Despite hitting the game-winner from 20 yards out as time expired, Gioia missed from distances of 33 and 34 yards. He hit the only field goal of his career in 2005 in the Stanford game from 29 yards.

This has opened the door for freshman Ryan Burkhart. The Wakarusa, IN native has a powerful leg and was named to the Indiana Top-50 all-state team by Hoosier high school coaches. Despite the power, accuracy might be the problem for Burkhart. He connected on just 12-of-22 field goal attempts as a senior but did boom a 53-yarder through the uprights. The powerful leg might also be perfect for kickoff duty. Another name to keep in mind: freshman walk-on Tamba Samba, who is on scholarship with the Irish soccer team. He attended Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis and had the best kickoff hangtime at the 2005 Ray Guy/Prokicker.com Camp in 2005, even better than Burkhart.

The punting situation might be a little clearer. Geoff Price's performance during spring ball impressed Weis enough to single him out during a press conference. The senior has two punts on his resume, back on 2004, for an average of 44.5 yards. Price looked stellar in the Blue-Gold game, dropping a few inside the 20 and showing good hang time.

Another walk-on, Eric Maust from Roswell, GA, will provide competition for Price. Maust is an Irish baseball recruit but also played four years of high school football. He was the quarterback for Blessed Trinity Catholic High School and set the career marks for touchdowns, yards and scoring. Maust did punt his senior year, averaging 39.8 yards per boot with a long of 68.

More clear is the punt return position. The pugilist himself, Zbikowski, will try to outdo his 2005 performance that saw him take two punts back for scores and accumulate a 14-yard average per return. Zbikowski's straight-ahead, no-prisoner style of running with the ball makes it extremely hard for defenders to take him down. Good things always seem to happen when the football is in his hands.

Last but not least, the kickoff return duties are wide open. Last season, David Grimes was a fixture on the unit. The sophomore averaged 22.5 yards per return and could get more chances to take his first kick all the way for a touchdown. The other returnee might have been D.J. Hord but he injured himself this off-season and is not expected back until later in the year or if at all. This gives a few freshmen a chance to see the field. George West enrolled early and got a taste for the position during the spring. Others in the mix could be Munir Prince and Barry Gallup, both fleet-footed individuals who could give the offense excellent field position.


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