ND vs. Opponents: Special Teams

As IrishEyes continues its preview of Notre Dame's 2008 season we are going to examine each position group and see how the Irish match up with their opponents. All of the rankings are completely subjective and evaluations are based on a number of factors including past productivity, potential and depth. We conclude this series with a look at special teams.

It's almost unfair to think that the Trojans are at the top of the special teams list as well, but that's the kind of depth you get when you land top recruiting classes every year. Senior kicker David Buehler and senior punter Greg Woidneck both return after starting last year. Buehler was 16 of 19 on field goal attempts and 52 of 54 on PATs while also excelling at kickoffs. Woidneck has proved to be solid at pinning opponents deep even if his leg is the strongest. Sophomore Joe McKnight should be even better as a punt returner in his sophomore year after averaging 8.4 yards per return last year. Sophomores Ronald Johnson and C.J. Gable will be back as kick returners again this year. Johnson was able to flash his speed with 24.8 return average last year, while Gable only got the chance to return two before he was injured.

Senior Conor Lee is back for his third year as the starter and brings with him a perfect 75-75 extra point rate along with a 83.3% (30-36) field goal percentage. Senior Dave Brytus will be in his second year starting at Pitt after two years at Purdue. Brytus, who will also handle kickoffs, landed 18 of 66 punts in 2007 inside the 20-yard line while averaging 39.6 yards. Junior cornerback Aaron Berry returned most of the punts last year and could help out on kickoffs if needed, but that job will most likely go to receiver junior T.J. Porter.

The Wolverines return all three kickers from last year in place-kicker K.C. Lopata, kickoff specialist Bryan Wright and punter Zoltan Mesko. Mesko was fifth in the conference in punting last year while Lopata was 11 of 12 on field goal attempts and Wright had 10 touchbacks in his 60 kickoffs. Brandon Minor, Carlos Brown and Donovan Warren all give Rich Rodriguez options as returners along with a host of speedy freshmen.

Sophomore kicker Brandon Walker is back after converting just six of his 12 field goal attempts last year. Walker currently has the edge over juniors Ryan Burkhart and Nate Whitaker, but he will still have to gain the confidence of Charlie Weis. Junior punter Eric Maust filled in admirably for Geoff Price at punter last year, averaging 42.1 yards per punt. Walker could also get a look at punter. Senior Kevin Brooks was listed as the starting long snapper on the pre-spring depth chart, but that job could eventually go to incoming freshman Mike Golic. Senior David Grimes was listed as the number one punt returner although he has only returned one punt in his career and that was in 2005. Junior George West is not much more experienced back there, having returned four punts in 2006, but is listed behind Grimes. Sophomores Armando Allen and Gary Gray wind out the depth chart at punt returner. Allen is also listed as the top kick returner with sophomore Golden Tate figuring to move up to number two in the absence of Darrin Walls. West, Gray and Barry Gallup Jr. could also get chances back there.

The special teams phase of the game is the Orange's best. Weight has been an issue with kicker Pat Shadle, but he has dropped some pounds heading into his senior year after converting 26 of his 32 field goal attempts in 2007. Punter Rob Long earned Freshman All-American honors as he averaged 41.9 yards per punt last year and could add kickoffs to his list of duties in 2007. Max Suter set an NCAA record for kickoff return yardage (1,299 yards) as a freshman in 2008 and will again be joined by classmate Mike Holmes, who had a standout season as both a corner and returner last year.

Of all of the special teams players that Notre Dame will not have to face this year, Dorien Bryant will probably be missed the least. Desmond Tardy got eight chances to return kicks last year as teams tried to avoid Bryant and Tardy had a average of 28.6 yards on those eight returns with a touchdown. Tardy will also be the likely punt returner. Junior kicker Chris Summers is back after shaking off a bad freshman season with a solid sophomore campaign, converting 18 of 22 kicks. Summers will probably add punting to his duties in 2008 to replace Jared Armstrong.

Junior kicker Ryan Perkins is back after making 15 of 20 kicks last year, but could be pushed by redshirt freshman Erik Folk. Senior Jared Ballman averaged 40.9 yards per punt last year and was also solid as a kickoff specialist, a role he figures to play again in 2008. Freshman Chris Polk enrolled over the winter and was impressive enough in spring ball that he will get plenty of chances as a returner. The Huskies coaches have stated that they would like to use Polk in the same way that USC used Reggie Bush, if that's the case Polk's first impact could come in the third phase. Look for sophomore running back Brandon Johnson and sophomore wideout Curtis Shaw to also get shots at returning kicks.

Sophomore walk-on Trace Jones and incoming freshman Jay Wooten are battling to replace the best kicker in school history in Connor Barth. Senior Terrence Brown is back after averaging 41.1 yards per punt, but there has been a problem in finding a suitable replacement for long snapper Michael Murphy. The Tar Heels will have no such problems in the return game as they bring back the ACC's all-time leading kick return leader in Brandon Tate. As a return guy and a receiver, Tate led the ACC with an average of 147.1 all-purpose yards, averaging 17.8 yards per touch.

Junior kicker Brett Swenson did not have as good a sophomore season as he did as a freshman in 2006. He was 15 of 22 last year, including three misses inside of 40 yards after making 15 of 19 as a freshman. Punter Aaron Bates is back for his sophomore year after averaging 39.7 yards per punt last season. The Spartans will miss Devin Thomas as a returner as much as they will miss him as a receiver after he set a Big Ten record with 1,135 return yards last year. Incoming freshman Johnny Adams will get a look at returning punts and kicks along with sophomore Mark Dell.

The kicker job should be up in the air after last year's starter Steve Aponavicius missed half of his kicks from beyond 30 yards in 2007. He could be replaced by sophomore Billy Bennett, who was one of the highest rated kickers in the country coming out of high school, but has struggled with consistency. Incoming freshman Ryan Quigley could challenge for the kicking job, but he is better bet to beat out sophomore Billy Flutie as punter. It appears that return specialist and running back Jeff Smith will play in 2008 after doctors at one point advised him not to because of multiple concussions. If Smith were to win the starting running back job then freshman Josh Haden could be used more in the return game. Sophomore corner DeLeon Gause has the inside track at punt returner.

Last year's kicker Garrett Palmer who was 13 of 15 on field goal attempts, including 6 of 7 from outside of 40 yards is gone. The Aztecs will replace him with sophomore transfer Bryan Shields who showed a strong leg in the spring game, connecting on three field goals from outside of 40, including one from 52. The Aztecs will replace their long snapper and punter with highly touted incoming freshmen Aaron Brewer and Brian Stahovich. Receivers Mekell Wesley, Vincent Brown and running back Davon Brown will get looks as return men. Wesley averaged over 20 yards on both kickoff and punt returns in 2007.

12. NAVY
Senior kicker Matt Harmon is back after two years as a part-time starter, connecting on all 47 of his extra point chances and 14 of his 21 field goal attempts. Sophomore Kyle Delahooke will be in his first year as a starter, but may not get too many chances as the Midshipmen punted less than any other team in the nation last year. The staff is looking for ways to get senior backup quarterback Jarod Bryant on the field and punt returner will be one of them. Sophomore safety Emmett Merchant and senior slot back Shun White figure to be the kickoff returners.

Redshirt freshman David Green could handle both the kicking and punting duties for the Cardinal in 2008. Green will have to replace the school's all-time punting leader in Jay Ottovegio, who was a four-year starter. Sophomore receiver Doug Baldwin will be the team's top kickoff and punt returner while senior cornerback Chris Hobbs will also get a chance after averaging 6.8 yards per punt return last season.

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories