When asked specifically about freshman linebacker Steve Filer's chances of getting on the field this year, Charlie Weis said that for Filer and the rest of his classmates the fastest route to the field is through special teams.
"We're working with a bunch of those type of guys because if they can get into the depth chart on special teams. If you know you're going to use him, that's more of a reason to be grooming him to play at linebacker," Weis said. "So, the first thing he has to do is make sure that he gets on the field on special teams. That's why the next couple of days are going to be really big because (Saturday) the bigger emphasis is going to be offense and defense, (Sunday) the bigger emphasis is going to be special teams."
Special teams coordinator Brian Polian said that there are several young players that could find themselves out there for special teams.
"I think some guys are starting to distinguish themselves. Now (Sunday) night is going to go a long way. (Sunday) night is going to be a big evaluation night in the special teams. It's not just Filer, it's (Darius) Fleming, it's R.J. Blanton. It's some second-year guys like Harrison Smith and Steve Paskorz," Polian said. "There have been some guys that have really stood out and we need to give them a couple more opportunities between (Saturday morning) and (Sunday) night to get an idea of where they might fit and where they might help us."
Special teams offer young players an especially good opportunity to get on the field because there is not as much advanced-level scheming involved and it allows them to just go out and let their athletic abilities shine.
"It's hard not to get mesmerized by a guy like Filer or a guy like Fleming because they are athletic. There's not as much thinking going on in the kicking game as there is on offense or defense because we're not seeing as many multiple looks," Polian said. "Our jobs don't change on the fly as much, not that they don't, but not as much. What you're trying to find is the guys that will cut it loose and play. A guy that can run 4.5, if he is thinking too much and doesn't recognize what's in front of him and that makes him slow down and run 4.75, what's the use of being 4.5 if you can't play fast?"
Polian has been able to use some of the things that they teach the linebackers and apply it to special teams.
"What we need to do is get some of these young kids both freshmen and second-year players just reacting to what they see, trust their eyes and go ahead and play fast," Polian said. "One of the things that we've said, Coach Tenuta says it all of the time in the linebacker meeting room, ‘Listen, if you're going to make a mistake, make it 1,000 miles an hour. Don't get confused and stop. Nothing good ever happens if we get confused and slow down. If you're going to make a mistake make it 100 miles an hour and see if we can't hit somebody in the process. And we'll get it fixed later on.'
"That's what we're looking forward to seeing (Sunday) night. Which group of young guys and second-year guys is going to cut loose and play and play fast? We can get the technique stuff cleaned up."
The Notre Dame place-kicker situation figures to be in better shape in 2008 than it was last season just by the fact that Brandon Walker will no longer be a freshman.
"(Walker) had his first offseason in our strength and conditioning program. Let's face it a high school kicker, when he gets here, is not going to be the strongest individual that you have on your team," Polian said. "So I think him coming here and having an offseason with Ruben (Mendoza) has been productive. I think it's helped him. I think it's helped (junior kicker Ryan) Burkhart as well. It's been encouraging so far."
The added strength should give Walker more confidence in his leg this season.
"I think knowing that he's physically stronger has got a lot to do with it. I think that the other thing that we have to talk about when we talk about strength with a specialist is flexibility," Polian said. "I think that that's one thing that we focused on here in this offseason was making sure that those guys made a concerted effort to become more flexible athletes. That has a direct effect on their ability to kick the ball…I think a guy that knows that he doesn't have to overswing now to make a 40 to 45-yard field goal because he's just got that confidence that I've built up my power, I think that helps."
Polian believes that it is important for the staff and the kickers to find their natural swings.
"Anybody that's ever played golf will understand. I draw a lot of analogies between kicking and golf. If you get up there and swing hard and say, ‘Boy, I'm really going to hit this one hard,' and swing hard, not a lot of good things happen. At least not in my experience, maybe it's because I'm so bad," Polian said. "We want them to go out and take their natural swing and when we figure out what the limits are to their natural swing then Coach Weis will make the decision whether or not it's wise to put them out there.
"If a guy can't make a 52-yard field goal, I don't think we'd ask them to make a 52-yard field goal because how many good things can happen if he goes out there with the mindset, ‘Boy, I'm going to have to muscle up and swing as hard as I can?' Often when you take that mindset the result is not that good."
Earlier in the week Walker talked about focusing on accuracy and it sounds like Polian has given him a good idea of the kind of range the staff is looking for.
"My position on this is that in Division IA college football, if our offense can get the ball to the opponent's 20, that makes it about a 38-yard field goal for us, I hold them to the standard that from 38 yards and in we shouldn't miss. If your offense can get the ball to the 20, we should get points," Polian said. "Now from time to time you'll miss one in weather and all sorts of factors become involved, but we want to create the mindset that if we get that thing to about a 40-yard kick we should expect to make it."
While Walker appears to have a strong grip on the place-kicker's job, the long snapper position is not as clear. Four freshman Mike Golic, Jr., Braxston Cave, Darius Fleming and Lane Clelland were listed on the pre-camp depth chart along with walk-ons Kevin Brooks and Paul Kuppich.
"It's narrowed, but it's not down to one or two yet. That thing has got to play itself out. There are still some roles that need to play themselves out. I'm not panicked, Coach is not panicked, we've seen significant progress," Polian said. "We're still in training camp mode and we still have a couple more workouts here to make some evaluations and make some decisions before we have to begin to move forward."