A few late-season changes to the kick return unit; promising additions and two playmakers up front along the punt return group; and the assumption of a breakout player all point to 2009 as a season of success for the much-maligned Irish return game. Below is an early look at Notre Dame's kick-off return and punt return teams heading into fall camp.
Note: Previously ranked units (1-7): WR, DB, Kick/Punt Coverage, QB, RB, LB, TE. These rankings will be updated at the end of August and weekly throughout the season.
Kick and Punt Return Teams:
Irish Eyes Pre-Camp Rank: No. 8
2008 National Rankings: The punt return unit ranked No. 60 (of 119 teams) with an 8.9 average-per-return and one touchdown (Mike Anello blocked a punt that Toryan Smith scooped up for a 15-yard touchdown vs. Navy). The kick return unit finished 53rd nationally with 52 returns for 1,121 yards and one touchdown (vs. Hawaii) for a 21.5 yards-per-return average.
Veteran Kick Return Candidates: Junior RB Armando Allen (21 returns, 543 yards, 25.9 per return including a 96-yard TD vs. Hawaii.); junior WR Golden Tate (26 returns, 521 yards, 20.0 yards per return).
Hands Team Members Lost: David Bruton and David Grimes. Likely replacements include Michael Floyd (who was injured prior to Notre Dame's three hands team"appearances last season vs. Navy), and John Goodman or Mike Ragone.
Probable Punt Returner: Golden Tate (14 returns for 116 yards, all of which occurred after and including the Washington game in late October).
Backup Punt Returner: Armando Allen (7 returns for 66 yards but none after the Purdue contest in late September).
Punt Return Regulars: Robert Blanton and Raeshon McNeil (on punt returns, starting cornerbacks often line up vs. the opposing gunners, who are also eligible receivers, in case of a fake on the outside). Sergio Brown (blocked two punts), Mike Anello (one blocked punt and one separate 28-yard return); Barry Gallup, Darius Fleming, Scott Smith, Ray Herring, and Steve Filer.
PR Team Regulars Lost: Steve Quinn, Mo Crum, and David Bruton.
Probable PR Addition: Darrin Walls (outside protector/CB)
Possible Newcomers/Additions: TEs Mike Ragone/Bobby Burger. Toryan and/or Brian Smith, especially when a "safe" return is called for with an opponent punting near mid-field.
Highest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 5. The KR unit has serious potential as does the punt block tandem of Mike Anello and Sergio Brown. The punt return efforts and execution of the unit as a whole remains a mystery. Robert Blanton should help as an outside protector and Darrin Walls would be an interesting addition on the other side.
Lowest Team Ranking I Can Fathom for the Unit at Season's End: No. 11. Both units have been sub par for the last three seasons with a few flashes of brilliance late last year.
Strengths: The Irish have a kick return option that seems like he could break out as a junior (Tate) and another that did…for a 96-yard score on his final return of 2008 (Allen). Allen added a 53-yarder (at the end of the game vs. MSU) and posted two returns in excess of 35 yards vs. Purdue. Tate's long was a 30-yard effort vs. Syracuse and a 29-yard spinning return at North Carolina. The team's 21.6-yard average was the highest of the Weis era and a two-yard increase over the '07 return team number. Freshman RB Cierre Wood figures to lend a third option as a kick returner sooner rather than later.
The Irish punt return team first featured Allen (from the SD State game through Purdue in late September at just over nine yards per return) then Tate, from the Washington contest through season's end (more than eight yards per return). A 42-yard return at BC was Tate's best effort though he also lost a fumble that evening.
Sergio Brown and Mike Anello both blocked a punt last season (Brown actually blocked two, but for some reason was not credited with his opening game effort) and both are legitimate threats to break through an opponent's wall again in '09. On the outside, it appears that Robert Blanton could turn into a top-notch protector vs. the opposition's gunner while Darrin Walls will have a shot to replace classmate Raeshon McNeil opposite Blanton for '09.
Weaknesses: The punt return group lacks punch, as evidenced by the unit's middling national ranking (60 of 119). At 8.9 yards per PR, the group posted the second-lowest total of the Weis era (the lowest, surprisingly, was 2006) and the third-lowest total at the school in the last 23 years.
The KR group wasn't much better statistically (53rd in the nation) but showed promise near season's end. I'd be stunned if Golden Tate doesn't post several returns in excess of 30 yards this year. Until that projection turns into production, the unit can be classified as inconsistent at best, and one of the more troubling position groups of the Weis era, posting return averages of 19.1, 21.4, 19.7, and 21.6 from 2005-08 (to be fair, Willingham's groups weren't consistently better after Holtz and Davie consistently fielded top tier KR teams from 1986-2001).
Though Allen shows promise as a KR, he often failed as the lead blocker for Tate (senior George West, incidentally, was solid in this role). Tate, who could be classified as an indifferent blocker as a wide receiver, threw the lead block of the year to spring Allen for the KR touchdown vs. Hawaii, but that was not the norm.
Which brings us to the insufficiently named "Hands Team." The Irish faced three onsides kicks in 2008. One was illegally batted out of bounds by Robby Parris (statistically, ND was credited with a "recovery" despite the re-kick). On the re-kick, the entire left side of the Irish front line blatantly shied from the ball and Navy recovered. Following a Midshipmen touchdown, the Irish had the misfortune of watching a perfect onsides kick travel in the air to an untouched Navy outside defender for the recovery. The Irish left side was at fault again, this time for failing to provide decent (any) clear-out blocks of onrushing Midshipmen which would allow the backline players (Parris, then Tate) to come up for the recovery.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the Hands Team's failure vs. Navy was the celebration that awaited Parris after he illegally batted of the ball – multiple players greeted him with chest bumps and smiles for the illegal play. Now you and I might have a right to be confused; the announcers might as well; but the players should not have been. It was either a failure to teach or a failure to understand a significant rule.
The unit will certainly fair better in this season during its 1 to 5 (or so) opportunities (and Michael Floyd will be available - he was injured prior to Navy's attempts). The embarrassment of that day in Baltimore should serve as a lesson to a team that had obviously dialed down its intensity level playing against a team that never will.
Year-End Prediction and Ranking: I have high hopes for the kick return unit. The 96-yard TD by Allen featured near-perfect execution with two tremendous seal blocks by Steve Paskorz on the left side of the wedge and Ray Herring sprinting back to stop his man on the far right. Asaph Schwapp, Thomas Bemenderfer, and Taylor Dever teamed to pancake two men in the middle of the action (wedge) and both Steve Filer and Darius Fleming stoned outside defenders while Steve Quinn stood up his man to provide Allen a gaping middle lane. Golden Tate finished the job by throwing the team's block of the year and Allen, as a result of these nine other players, had just the kicker to beat.
There's no reason this unit, with the possible additions of Burger and Ragone (among others) can't produce more excitement and a high level of execution in '09.
The punt return group has been poor since Zbikowski's dominant effort as a junior in 2005 (14.1 per return and two touchdowns). Key blocks are rarely executed, though Blanton's protection on the outside could play an important role this season and Tate's general lack of big plays as a punt returner remains a mystery. The Irish do, however, have the chops to get after the punter, with both Sergio Brown and Mike Anello (who could/should also audition as an outside protector opposite Blanton) showing a natural ability to slip through the protection.
If two of the three phases of the return teams: KR, PR, and the occasional punt block efforts up front improve, the Irish can steal valuable field position in '09. The pressure is on for these units as their kick coverage teammates have severely outperformed the returners over the last three years.
Early KR Lineup Projection (and the graduating senior they'll replace):
Return: Allen and Tate deep with George West occasionally filling-in as a lead blocker;
Wedge: Paskorz, Dever, Ragone (Bemenderfer), Burger (Schwapp);
Front Line: Herring, Filer, T. Smith (Quinn), S. Smith, Fleming.