Questions for Spring: Special Teams

Special teams are a big part of the game. So much so that Irish head coach Charlie Weis has decided to spend more personal time overseeing this facet of the game. That may prove to be a very wise move in 2008.

Let's face it, the Irish struggled on offense last season. They also had problems stopping the opposition from moving the ball and scoring. While we expect Notre Dame to improve dramatically over their 2007 results, how much improvement can one expect? Chances are the Irish will be in a lot of tight football games again next season, and special teams could be the difference between winning and losing.

One thing stood out to me when speaking with Weis earlier this winter about special teams. Without a designated special teams coach, and that being his only job, game-planning and fixing problems can be difficult task for any team during the season as there are only so many hours teams are allowed to practice each week.

So when we saw Brandon Walker hooking his kicks last season, who would work with Walker to fix his kicking motion if all coaches had other coaching responsibilities? And when would they have the time?

When the Irish were struggling to find answers to an anemic kickoff and punt return, when would they spend the time to fix these problems, especially if they were problems with scheme?

More importantly, I think Weis hit the nail on the head when he explained about his desire to develop an attitude on special teams. I'm not a coach, but it would seem to me that special teams is about effort and want-to, as well as playing your assignment with a lot of effort and want-to. It would seem this facet of the game starts with a great attitude, a good scheme, a guy who can game-plan, and someone who can focus on fixing problems when they arise. I'm not sure the Irish had time to accomplish this previously with the way their coaching responsibilities were designated. This change may prove to be a very good change for 2008.

And changes need to be made from 2007.

Last season the Irish had one of the premier punt returners in the country and still managed to finish middle of the pack in punt returns. The Irish had a true weapon in Tom Zbikowski, a person who could change field position, and they weren't able to take advantage of his talents. That hurt the Irish offense and defense in the end. If the Irish had a shorter field how many more points could have they scored? If the opposition had a longer field, how many less points would have they scored?

The Irish were even worse on kickoff returns, finishing ranked 93rd in the country. You can't convince me that the Irish don't have better athletes than Utep, San Diego State, San Jose State, UAB, Miami of Ohio and the many other non-BCS teams that finished ahead of the Irish in kickoff returns in 2007.

Notre Dame finished a very respectable 13th in net punting and return the steady Eric Maust next season, so they should be fine there.

Punt coverage was just OK as the Irish did finish ranked 40th, but they also surrendered a touchdown in punt coverage—which is something every team sets as a goal to avoid.

Kickoff coverage also needs some help. The Irish closed the season ranked 89th. Again, you can't convince me that the Irish don't have players fast enough to get down the field and cover a kick—at least players as fast as Tulane, Akron, Toledo, Utep, Navy, San Jose State……the list goes on.

Field goals were probably the biggest disappointment in 2007. The Irish attempted just 13 field goals all season last year…..only six were made. One only needs to be reminded of Irish head coach Charlie Weis opting for a fourth-down desperation heave over a 40-yard field try to win the game against Navy. That's how much confidence he had in his field goal team…..to not even try to win the game?

Weis opted to not pursue a kicker in the 2008 recruiting class, and he had the room to take one. That must mean he has confidence it at least one of his kickers to turn things around.

Watching Brandon Walker kick last season, he consistently hooked his kicks, which I assume means it's a kicking motion problem, or a foot-planting problem. He has plenty of leg to kick from 45 yards in, so if the Irish can fix his problems striking the ball, they should have something in Walker. They have an entire spring and summer to work on the problem and hopefully they can fix it.

I also believe it will be important to add some star power to special teams. I'm constantly reminded of my first impressions of David Bruton. Here's this tall, skinny kid blazing down the field and making what seemed like every play on special teams. Bruton appeared to be twice as fast as many of the other players trying to do the same thing. Bruton is definitely fast, but is that much faster than the others or is it want-to? I can't answer that. Amusingly, I saw the same thing in Sergio Brown last year. The Irish need to find more Sergio's and put them on special teams.

I do like the fact that Weis is taking a large responsibility in special teams this year. His presence will make the team notice that he feels it's a big priority in 2008. I also like the fact that Weis isn't afraid to seek counsel and use his resources to find answers. Visiting Virginia Tech looking for help can only help the situation as I see it.

The most important thing is the Irish can turn some of these things around rather quickly. I don't expect Notre Dame to dominate many teams in the near future, so the difference between winning and losing very well might be special teams. I think Weis made another smart move, one of many this off season, in focusing on things he can control, and special teams is something that has needed fixing for quite some time. Saying and doing are two different things. Hopefully they'll get to the "doing" very soon on a number of these issues.


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