"It's more like install it, emphasize it in fall camp and touch on it once every two weeks during the season," special teams coach Brian Polian said. "What that was, and Coach Weis is a firm believer in situational football, is to be a smart, situational football team. On Sunday, that was all situational football. It was must onsides, hands teams and all the coaching points that go with those situations if one of those occurs during the season. We'll be prepared for it. The team that's prepared for situational football is the team that's going to succeed."
The big battle on special teams is at kicker. Senior Carl Gioia is the oldest of the bunch but does not have a lot of experience. He's only attempted one kick in his time at Notre Dame, connecting on a 29-yard field goal in last season's Stanford game. The main competition is freshman Ryan Burkhart, who has a big-time leg but can be wild at times with accuracy. Tomorrow's practice will determine a lot.
"We have given a lot of guys work," Polian said. "It's not settled yet. We were able to get a lot of work done on offense and defense last night and a little on special teams. But we said all along, we're not going to make any decisions until after Wednesday's practice because it's an hour of special teams. It's a special teams emphasis practice. We'll have a much better idea.
"We've been upfront with the players. Although the position coaches may make decisions on offense and defense, we were going to reserve judgment until after Wednesday's practice. It'll be completely special teams. We haven't gone through the final exam yet. There's no clear cut choice yet."
Tommy Zbikowski is the no-brainer choice for punt return duties. The senior returned two for touchdowns last year and is electric and tough to bring down once the ball is in his hands. As for the kick return job, that might be more open. There was a certain explosiveness missing from the unit in 2005, as evidenced by a long return of 40 yards from David Grimes. But there are a few freshmen who could provide speed. Munir Prince has impressed enough people with his quickness that Weis singled him out last week after practice. Other options could include Grimes and George West.
"The picture at kickoff return has begun to clear itself as well," Polian said. "We will again go through tomorrow and we're pleased with some of the progress we've made. We're anxious to work and watch that film and see how that works out."
It's been noted frequently that the entire Notre Dame coaching staff made a trek down south this off-season to the home of the Carolina Panthers. It wasn't just for the offense or defense but for the special teams as well. Polian loves it when he gets a chance to learn a new trick of the trade.
"I've said this all along that if you can make a trip down to a staff or a coach or a player and get one idea that it was worth the trip," Polian said. "Dan Crossman, their special teams coach, does an excellent job. Sometimes, you go visit with people and it makes you feel better about what you're doing. You say, ‘Maybe we're not off base and doing it the right way.' You look at ways to practice and be efficient.
"One of the guys I met down there was John Kasay, their kicker. John was down there when my father was the general manager of the Panthers. We have had a relationship for a long time. We talked about coaching kickers and technique. They're little things that special teams coaches might know about but when you talk to a guy who is a 10-year vet in the NFL, he's able to give some coaching points on how to handle guys. That was a valuable trip all around."
Tomorrow, the coaches will get a better idea of the depth chart on special teams. With a team full of high expectations, a kick that sails wide right or a fumble on a return could be the difference in a national championship season. Polian liked the effort he saw last night at the scrimmage but can't wait until tomorrow when the fuzzy picture will start to clear.
"We were perfect?" Polian asked about last night's scrimmage. "No, we weren't perfect. But we were working hard. That's a credit to the kids who have bought into what Coach Weis has been saying. As we come out of tomorrow and have one big session, I think we'll have an idea of who is going to be in the two-deep."