If you're wondering, the answer is "Yes, he did miss." Mike Anello missed a certain special teams tackle last season (vs. Stanford, more on that below). In fact, if you're judging harshly, or simply in a manner befitting a member of the pre-season Lott Trophy watch list, he also hesitated and thus did not make a tackle covering a third quarter punt at Boston College.
His official numbers show 23 tackles, a fumble recovery (Michigan) and two forced fumbles (UM and Syracuse). He caused another fumble (Michigan) not recorded by the official stat keepers. He also broke up a pass in the secondary in his only four minutes of playing time from scrimmage at Washington.
And though stats don't tell the entire story, consider this:
Anello posted four solos in the season opener vs. San Diego State…the same total as starting middle linebacker (and nickel linebacker) Brian Smith. He recorded more solo stops in the game against the Aztecs than did senior captain Mo Crum or emerging star, SLB Harrison Smith. Anello's four solos were more than (starters) defensive linemen Pat Kuntz and Ian Williams; starting rush linebackers/defensive ends John Ryan and Kerry Neal; and cornerback Raeshon McNeil as well…combined.
After the season's first two games, Anello's six solos and one assist (not to mention forced fumbles and fumble recovery on separate plays) ranked him higher on the defense's total tackle chart than starters/regulars McNeil, Kuntz, Ian Williams, Neal, Ryan, Justin Brown and Harrison Smith. He had registered the same number of solo stops as starting linebackers Brian Smith and Mo Crum when the Irish reached a 2-0 record heading into the Michigan State game.
This pace couldn't be maintained for a player who exclusively covered kicks and punts (considering the number of fair catches and downed punts, extensive tackle totals are tough to come by in punt coverage), but it illustrates the impact Anello had on the season's first two victories.
Additionally, Anello earned an honor that far exceeds any statistical metric for a Notre Dame player: the team's Nick Pietrosante award, shared with team captain (and elected Most Valuable Player) Maurice Crum, Jr. at season's end. The award, voted by the team, is presented to the Notre Dame student-athlete who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, and teamwork exhibited by the late Irish fullback who passed away in 1988. (Past winners include Chris Zorich, Aaron Taylor, Lamont Bryant, Jeff Faine, Derek Curry, Tom Zbikowski, and John Carlson.)
Anello returned for a 5th season to lead the team's kickoff (ranked No. 1 in the nation last season) and punt coverage units. And he'll have an adjustment to make this season to keep those units among the nation's best.
Anello's 2009 Season Outlook
First, and this must be reiterated to dispel the myth that simply "wanting to" is the key to Anello's success: Mike Anello is fast. Regardless of the broadcast team last season (NBC, ABC, and ESPN), Irish fans were continually treated to pearls of wisdom regarding Anello's unique cover skills that included, "he's all grit!" or "he's not the fastest guy…not by a long-shot."
Really? Because he was the first one downfield on kicks and generally a half-step behind a gazelle masquerading as David Bruton when covering punts. But it is his ability to break down and tackle at full speed, to cut while being blocked, and yes, a motor that doesn't stop, that separates Anello from other downfield sprinters.
In early April, Anello was named to the pre-season Lott Trophy watch list (the award is given to the player who makes the biggest IMPACT (Integrity, Maturity, Performance, Academics, Community, and Tenacity) on the 2009 season. First issued in 2004, previous winners include James Laurinaitis (Ohio State), Glenn Dorsey (LSU), Daymeion Hughes (California), DeMeco Ryans (Alabama) and David Pollack (Georgia).
Irish opponents on the pre-season watch list include Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham; Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich (Herzlich announced in May that he was diagnosed with and is battling Ewing's Sarcoma - a form of cancer); Michigan State linebacker Greg Jones; USC Safety Taylor Mays; and Stanford Safety Bo McNally.
To live up to his 2009 billing, Anello must negotiate opposing blocking schemes without the team's (possibly the nation's) second-best kick and punt coverage man from 2008, David Bruton, racing him down the field. (The pair combined to form the nation's best tandem because Bruton possesses what I'd refer to as rare football speed – NFL speed…Anello simply has rare speed while running under a kick or punt.) The loss of Bruton will likely rear its head in punt coverage, as opponents can double-team Anello without impunity until Bruton's replacement (likely Sergio Brown, though there are a host of other candidates, including Darrin Walls, Jamoris Slaughter, and Robert Blanton) proves he can break down after a full speed sprint and make a clean tackle.
You'll likely see two men assigned to Anello on every Irish punt. And you'll certainly see opponents devise a series of schemes to limit his impact covering kicks. Remember that when Harrison Smith, Kyle McCarthy, Sergio Brown, Darius Fleming, Steve Filer, Scott Smith, and Manti Te'o are burying opposing returners with clean shots (how many kick/punt coverage gunners actually make their teammates better?)
Anello has vowed to return a full step faster from a broken tibia he suffered the injury in the season-finale against USC (while making a tackle, of course). I wouldn't bet against the man that refuses to remain blocked.
Anello Game-by-Game in 2008
San Diego State: Anello struck on the opening punt of the season, limiting Aztecs kick returner Demarco Sampson to a one-yard return. In the third quarter, Anello teamed with David Bruton on a three-yard stop at midfield.
Anello added two key fourth quarter stops in kick coverage, both at the 20-yard line. On the first, Anello stopped Sampson for a 10-yard gain after the Irish took their first lead (14-13). Then, after extending the lead to 21-13, Anello stopped Sampson for a 13-yard return just inside the 20-yard line with 2:08 remaining. The Aztecs threw four incomplete passes on what was their final offensive possession.
Michigan: Leading 7-0, Anello ripped through kick coverage to make a full-speed diving recovery at the Michigan 14-yard line to set up a Clausen-to-Kamara touchdown connection. After the Irish extended the lead to 21-0 on a slant-and-go from Clausen-to-Tate, Anello tripped Wolverines kick returner Brandon Harrison on a shallow kick-off, limiting him to a 16-yard return. Then, on the first kick-off of the fourth quarter, Anello caused another fumble, this time at the Michigan 30-yard line (recovered by the Wolverines).
He made his presence felt on punt returns as well, making the initial hit (allowing David Bruton and Harrison Smith to clean up the mess) on a two-yard return. Finally, on the first punt of the second half, Anello beat a double-team block to cause a fumble (again recovered by UM) with a full sprint-and-dive, arriving a half-second after the ball to pin Michigan inside the10-yard line.
Michigan State: No tackles in limited chances (one covered punt and two total kick-offs). Fellow gunner David Bruton did field a punt inside the Spartan's 4-yard line with Anello standing next to him).
Purdue: On the game's opening kick-off, the completely unblocked Anello (nice scouting) stopped Kory Sheets short of the 15-yard line with a diving form tackle. He added a stop of Sheets at the 12-yard line later in the half, fighting off a lead block and getting help from LB Scott Smith on the play. Anello was officially credited for a third tackle, but that was apparently out of scorekeeper habit as he wasn't close to the play.
Stanford: Anello chased down kick returner Anthony Kimble after a 26-yard return in the 4th quarter. And in a true Haley's Comet Moment, Anello openly whiffed on a potential safety as Doug Baldwin fielded a punt in his own end zone. David Bruton made the stop at the 1-yard line. (Note: This was written in jest, but it's a shame he missed on this single occasion, as the play would have been an all-time highlight reel special for Anello).
North Carolina: After negotiating a double-team, Anello met Tar Heels star punt returner Brandon Tate for a 9-yard gain. He later was awarded a tackle on a short kick return but was actually more of a "first-hit" contributor on the play (Harrison Smith made the stop after another six yards – one of the few "broken tackles" of the season against Anello).
Washington: With the Irish holding a 7-0 lead after a Clausen-to-Floyd touchdown, Anello launched himself into what appeared to be a gaping hole in kick coverage, limiting Huskies KR Jordan Polk to a 16-yard return (a nomination for Anello's best hit of the season).
Pittsburgh: Just one tackle, a kick-off tackle after an 8-yard return before the half on an intentionally short kick.
Boston College: Anello had just one opportunity in punt coverage and both he and David Bruton missed (Bruton whiffed, Anello hesitated and was subsequently screed out of the play) allowing a 20-yard return. The Eagles other defensive stops against the Irish resulted in four fair catches; a blocked punt; a turnover on downs; and four Clausen interceptions. In Notre Dame's only kickoff of the day, Anello drilled Harrison Smith and the man blocking him, leaving two (if not) three players dazed. It was that kind of evening for the Irish.
Navy: Anello recorded two fourth quarter tackles vs. the Midshipmen but his major contribution was an unabated run at the punter. His blocked punt landed in the arms of linebacker Toryan Smith for a 15-yard touchdown and a 7-0 lead in the 27-21 victory. Anello, while lying on the ground after the block, wisely slipped an arm around the punter's leg as he attempted to give chase.
Syracuse: The Irish (fittingly) opened the game with a punt and Anello beat the ball downfield, waited for Orange returner Ryan Howard to field the ball cleanly, and promptly stripped him with John Ryan recovering the fumble at the Syracuse 23-yard line. The Irish managed a field goal four plays later.
Later, Anello teamed with Ray Herring to record a tackle in kick coverage on an intentionally short kick (near halftime), limiting the Orange to a two-yard return at the 21-yard line. Finally, with a 23-10 lead in the fourth quarter, Anello tackled returner Mike Holmes after a 23-yard return.
USC: Anello broke his lower leg (tibia) on his only opportunity, covering a 1st quarter punt and holding Stafon Johnson to a 2-yard return.
Hawaii: DNP – broken leg