Irish Eyes continues its Pre-Camp Rankings for the team's major position units. Our two top-ranked units, the Wide Receivers and Defensive Backs were previewed earlier this week. The remaining units: Defensive Linemen; Field Goal Unit; Kick and Punt Coverage; Kick and Punt Return; Linebackers; Offensive Linemen; Running Backs; Quarterbacks; and Tight Ends will be featured over the next eight days.
These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season. Today's feature, and our No. 3 ranked position group:
Kick-off and Punt Coverage Units:
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 3
2008 National Rankings: The kick coverage team was the No. 1 ranked unit in the nation while the punt coverage team finished 27th (though 8th among teams forced to cover at least 25 punts). The nation's leader, Wake Forest, covered just 12 punts (the number does not include fair catches, touch backs, or kicks out of bounds) compared to 29 for the Irish.
Returning Regulars: 5th-year seniors Mike Anello, Scott Smith, Kyle McCarthy and Ray Herring; seniors Raeshon McNeil, Sergio Brown and Leonard Gordon; junior Harrison Smith; sophomores Darius Fleming and Steve Filer.
Kick-off Specialist: Senior Ryan Burkhart.
Probable Long-Snapper (Punts): Freshman Jordan Cowart.
Punter: Eric Maust.
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 1 – which was the unit's undisputed team ranking for 2008.
Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 4. The loss of David Bruton and Steve Quinn could impact both coverage units. Bruton was one of the nation's best gunners on punt coverage and a force covering kicks in tandem with Mike Anello. Currently, we've projected both the wide receivers and defensive backs to be better overall than the coverage teams.
Coverage Strengths: Mike Anello is the nation's best – a true impact player covering kickoffs. He's among the nation's stars in punt coverage as well (though you could certainly argue Bruton was the team's best in this regard last year). Anello finished with an incredible 23 tackles, two forced fumbles, and a fumble recovery. In addition to Anello, Harrison Smith, Kyle McCarthy, Darius Fleming, and Sergio Brown can be considered "plus" players in coverage while Scott Smith and Steve Filer performed at a consistently high level last year.
The possible addition of Darrin Walls, as well as Jamoris Slaughter and one of two freshman: Zeke Motta and/or Manti Te'o would add additional value to the coverage units. Raeshon McNeil and Robert Blanton could provide a presence as well.
Weaknesses: The loss of Bruton on kick coverage will likely be overcome by the additions of Slaughter and Walls or an expanded role for Sergio Brown or Raeshon McNeil. Bruton's skill as a gunner on the punt coverage unit will be far more difficult to replace. He was almost unblockable off the snap and formed an impressive pair with Anello on the other side. Both showed incredible football speed last season but more importantly, possessed the ability to break down out of a sprint and make a clean tackle on the returner.
Sergio Brown will likely get the first crack at Bruton's gunner position. If you need something to critique (or admire) when the Irish settle for a punt early this season, watch how Brown fares on the outside.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: I think the overall impact of the coverage units will slip a bit this season, due largely to the absence of Bruton, but that the kick-off team will still finish among the nation's top 10. Look for the punt coverage unit to hold steady near the top 20-25(though we can expect fewer punts than in '08, which will inevitably help the unit's average).
In tandem, Anello and Bruton played at an NFL level in 2008. Now Anello will face increased double-teams in punt coverage and the team's fastest football player is no longer on the other side to pick up the slack. Bruton also refused to be blocked, an innate skill that one of Brown/Slaughter/Walls/Blanton quartet must possess to approach his predecessor's level of play. The kick coverage team will still be a joy to watch, but the lack of touchbacks (just one last season in 60 total kicks) is bound to haunt a unit that should be forced to cover between 70 and 80 kickoffs in 2009.