Third Phase Needs to be Special

The third phase of the game is often overlooked by fans, but for a team like Notre Dame that is trying to turn the corner and has a number of games that could be considered toss-ups, special teams will be vital. Charlie Weis made it very clear the emphasis that he was going to place on it this year when he announced that he would be an assistant special teams coach.

Early on in preseason camp, Weis talked about the need to develop depth not just in the case of injuries, but also to give some of the full-time starters a break on special teams.

"I could play David Bruton on all four coverage teams. I could play him on punt team, punt return, kickoff and kickoff return and he'd be one of our best guys. But he's going to play every snap of the game on defense, so ideally what you want him to do is maybe play one or two units," Weis said just days into camp. "You prefer him to be a gunner on the punt team because he might be the best guy in the country at doing it. But you'd like to take him off those other teams if you could get somebody that's even relatively close.

"Ideally you'd want somebody…to come along to take some reps on special teams away from a guy like David Bruton."

Well, it seems like the coach has his ideal situation.

"Most of those guys are down to two (special teams units) at most," he said on Thursday. "For example, on the cover teams you'd like to keep your defensive players as much as you can involved in those cover teams. On the return teams the guys that are blocking, not that we don't have defensive players out there on the return teams as well, but the front line guys we've been able to pull back on a lot of those guys."

Weis has maintained throughout the preseason that even with this heralded group of newcomers, aside from a couple of freshmen like Kyle Rudolph or Michael Floyd, most of them would be making their initial contributions on special teams. Those rookies along with a few second-year guys seem to be the ones that have allowed Notre Dame to ease up on the loads for guys like Bruton.

"There's a lot of the younger guys, they're not all freshmen, but a lot of the sophomores and a lot of the younger guys have been able to take reps off and get in the mix where we can put them out there and have some confidence," Weis said.

When asked how many freshmen could see the field on special teams as the Irish head into their final week of preparations for San Diego State, Weis did not want to give a number.

"There's a bunch of them that might show up. We're still a few days away from getting to that point," he said. "What we're doing is we'll wait and see (the Aztecs') personnel. We get that game (tape) on Sunday so before you etch that down in stone, you have to make sure you know what they have before you're sure exactly what you're putting out against it. For example, if you're playing against a team that runs a bunch of little guys out there on a coverage unit, you don't want to put a bunch of slugs out there because they'll run right by them. I think we just have to wait a couple days just to make sure we're not premature."

At the very least, the Irish seem to have done a solid job of defining roles for key special teams performers. Notre Dame has three kickers who all understand their duties with sophomore Brandon Walker as the place-kicker, junior Eric Maust as punter and junior Ryan Burkhart handling kickoffs.

Walker was good on just half of his 12 field-goal attempts as freshman. Walker converted a long of 48 yards in the win over UCLA, but has returned for his second year with a renewed focus on consistency over distance. Walker made all five of his field goals attempts from inside of 30 yards, but was just 1-7 from beyond that mark.

"My main concern was accuracy this year," he said. "Coach Weis is not going to put me out there for a 65-yard field goal. I kept it short working on accuracy."

Maust earned four starts as a sophomore in 2007, including the final three games, averaging 42.1 yards on 21 kicks and landing nine inside of the opponent's 20-yard line. Maust should be even more settled in now that he is the clear number one guy after splitting time with Geoff Price last year.

Burkhart did not see any action last season, but he showed enough this preseason to earn the role as kickoff specialist. Burkhart has shown the ability to get the ball deep, but now needs to prove that he can do that consistently in game situations.

Freshman Braxston Cave won the position for long snapper on field goals and extra points, which may say as much about his ability as a center as it does his talent as a snapper. Weis has alluded to the fact that if he is going to burn a year of a guy's eligibility on special teams it would give the staff more incentive to make sure that the player can help out on either offense or defense. Cave will also be walk-on Kevin Brooks' backup as the deep snapper on punts.

Sophomore Armando Allen is listed as Notre Dame's top kickoff and punt returner. Based on his speed, he is an obvious candidate to be a game-breaking performer for the Irish in 2008 and placed a larger emphasis on his role as a return man in the offseason.

"That's one thing that I really took into consideration this offseason is that special teams are something that really can help the team," said Allen. "That's one thing I'm excited about. I feel like everybody is taking special teams more seriously."

Allen likes the idea of the head coach doubling as a special teams coordinator.

"He has a lot to offer us back there and it's good to have his presence back there at all times."

Sophomore Golden Tate will give Notre Dame another speedster back there on kickoffs while juniors Barry Gallup and George West are also listed as kick returners. West returned one kick for 22 yards last year, while Tate and Allen averaged 21.7 and 21.3 yards per kick return last year. As a team, Notre Dame averaged 19.7 yards a return while its opponents had an average of 22.8 yards.

With the loss of Tom Zbikowski, who averaged 10.2 yards per return last year, Bruton is the only player back that returned a punt in 2007. Senior David Grimes will give the Irish another dependable backup for punts and Tate is also listed on the depth chart as a punt returner.

The Irish would love to break a couple for touchdowns, but more importantly they need to be consistent to change the field position battle.


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