Note: Each position is ranked according to my view of the groups entering the 2010 season. I've accounted for 2009 performance, apparent spring improvement, 2010 developed depth, and my own projection for 2010 (with an emphasis on the starters) as the determining factors.
- IrishEyes' 2010 Pre-Camp Rank: No. 12
- 2009 Pre-Season Ranking: No. 3
- 2009 Post-Season Ranking: No. 11 (of 11)
- Highest ranking I can envision at season's end: Top half
- Lowest ranking I can envision at season's end: Last, if there's a repeat performance.
Position Coach: Mike Elston – Elston's Cincinnati kick coverage unit ranked 32nd nationally in 2009, limiting opponents to 20.43 yards per return and no touchdowns. Elston's group benefitted from 23 touchbacks in 92 total kickoffs.
His Bearcats punt coverage group finished 89th, allowing one touchdown in 24 total returns while yielding 11.0 yards per PR. Elston's kick coverage units have not allowed a touchdown since 2007 and allowed no punt return TD in 2007 or 2008.
Kick-off Specialists: David Ruffer (6'1" 176-pound senior, booted both of the team's two touchbacks – vs. Navy and at Pittsburgh but also booted two kicks out of bounds in 35 attempts; 62.1 net average); Nick Tausch (6'0" 190-pound sophomore. Accounted for one kickoff out of bounds in 35 attempts. 61.8 net average).
Punters: Ben Turk (5'11" 196-pound sophomore: 2 touchbacks, 9 inside the 20-yard line, long of 53 yards, 38.2 net average in 26 punts.); Pat Kramer (5'11" 160-pound junior walk-on – DNP 2009); Brandon Walker (6'3" 210-pound senior – DNP 2009, no career punts).
Long Snapper: Jordan Cowart (6'2" 215-pound sophomore); Ryan Cavanaugh (6'3" 200-pound junior walk-on – DNP 2009).
StrengthsBen Turk responded well to a mid-October benching, finishing the season with eight punts that traveled at least 50 yards with a net average of 45.5 vs. Connecticut and at Stanford (net includes return yardage). Nine of Turk's 26 punts were downed inside the opponents' 20-yard line while half of the 26 required fair catches. His four Blue Gold Game punts traveled 45, 48, 50 and 50 yards.
Steve Filer led the team with 12 special teams tackles last fall, 11 occurred running under kickoffs. A two-year special teams regular, Filer is expected to be a heavy part of the defensive rotation as a junior, but its unlikely kick coverage would be a role he vacates with the staff's stated emphasis on special teams.
Candidates abound to man the inside position next to Filer, though Anthony McDonald has an inside track after his effort last season (second on the squad with 10 special teams tackles). When we spoke in April, McDonald mentioned he relishes the violence and physical nature of covering kick-offs.
Returning Coverage Members: Junior linebackers Steve Filer, Anthony McDonald and David Posluszny; junior safety Jamoris Slaughter; sophomore safety Zeke Motta; senior safety Harrison Smith (key kick coverage member in 2008 as well). 5th-year senior Barry Gallup filled a kick coverage role in 2008.
Likely Veteran Additions: Junior linebacker Darius Fleming could resume a greater role on the coverage units (he excelled there in 2008) as could senior tight end/fullback Bobby Burger; senior linebacker Steve Paskorz; sophomore ‘backers Dan Fox and Carlo Calabrese.
Speedy senior cornerback Darrin Walls and sophomore cornerback E.J. Banks could serve in gunner roles for the punt coverage group and are candidates for outside coverage duties on the kick-off unit as well. Brian Kelly noted Gary Gray as the best tackler among Irish cornerbacks.
One player Irish fans are nearly assured of seeing running under both kicks and punts is junior safety Dan McCarthy. Sophomore tight end Jake Golic and junior running back Jonas Gray also possess the skill set for interior coverage roles. Sophomore tailback Cierre Wood represents an intriguing option covering punts.
Likely Incoming Freshmen Options: Linebacker/Safety Derek Roback; linebacker/safety Danny Spond; running back Cameron Roberson; linebackers Prince Shembo and Kendall Moore; freshman cornerback Lo Wood.
Prior to camp, I've pegged Roback as the player most likely to contribute early in coverage.
WeaknessesKick Coverage: Irish fans could have argued away the summer regarding the '09 team's most frustrating unit, but consider this: In 2008, the Irish kick coverage team ranked No. 1 in the nation, allowing just 16.47 yards per return while forcing seven special teams fumbles.
The group did so without the benefit of a big leg from its kickers, as the Irish recorded just one touchback that season.
Last season, sans David Bruton and Steve Quinn, but with the benefit of 9-plus returnees, that same group finished 69th nationally (21.98 per return), forcing a single turnover (at Stanford) and allowed two back-breaking touchdowns in close losses to Michigan and Connecticut.
The Irish were one of 13 teams to surrender two or more KR touchdowns last fall (only South Carolina and Texas A&M allowed as many as 3). Just two of those 13 teams finished in the top 25 of either poll. (Though one of the two was able to overcome its kick coverage issues and capture the BCS crown!)
Over the last two seasons, Notre Dame has lost six of its top eight kick/punt coverage men in David Bruton, Mike Anello, Steve Quinn, Kyle McCarthy, Raeshon McNeil and Scott Smith (an opinion – players not listed in order of total tackles). A seventh, Darius Fleming, has seen his special teams duties steadily decrease since a top-notch freshman effort.
Directional kickoffs may again prove the norm as David Ruffer tallied the only two touchbacks last season. Ruffer and Tausch combined for three kicks out of bounds (placing the ball at the opponent's 40-yard line) while the pair's kick-offs averaged a landing point near the 8-yard line. (Both kicked off on 35 occasions last year).
Punt Coverage: The Irish finished 105th in punt coverage defense last season, allowing nearly 13 yards per return. The statistic is somewhat misleading, however, as opponents returned just 8 punts in 12 games vs. the Irish – tied for the second-lowest total in the nation with Central Michigan and behind Florida's head-shaking number of 5 punt returns faced.
Notre Dame was 99th in net punting (Cincy was 98th) with a 33.62 average from both Eric Maust (who will not return for a 5th year) and sophomore-to-be Ben Turk. The Irish allowed punts to be returned in only four games: Purdue, USC, Uconn and Stanford, but the Boilermakers returned two offerings 31 and 18 yards while adding 15 yards on a roughing penalty in a third attempt. Connecticut did additional damage with three returns totaling 43 yards including returns of 31 and 11 yards.
Notre Dame didn't blow a game due to its punt coverage as they did when failing to cover kicks vs. the Wolverines and Huskies, but would have likely lost at Purdue if not for the surprising speed of departed 5th-year senior Scott Smith, who tracked down Boilermakers return man Aaron Valentin in the open field, tackling the wide receiver at the ND 43-yard line late in the 2nd Quarter in West Lafayette.
Finally, players such as David Bruton and Mike Anello (before his broken leg) as well as Kyle McCarthy (when he was a coverage regular in '08) played with abandon and absolutely refused to be blocked. We rarely saw that from a coverage member last season.
Entering AugustThe team's greatest special teams strength entering fall camp is its head coach – one who has stated special teams excellence as the quickest route to a program turnaround. Kelly, Elston, and a host of athletes hungry to make an impact should greatly improve the coverage units after a terrible effort last fall.
Kick-offs were not included in the Blue Gold Game and punts were not live (all fair caught) but I'll take a shot at naming the squad's coverage units entering September:
Kick-off Coverage: Ruffer (K), Filer, McDonald, Paskorz, Motta, Slaughter, Harrison Smith, McCarthy, Barry Gallup, Darrin Walls (to lend some speed outside) and E.J. Banks.
Punt Coverage: Jordan Cowart (LS), Ben Turk (P), Bobby Burger (protector), E.J. Banks and either Jamoris Slaughter or Gary Gray (gunners), Manti Te'o, Dan McCarthy, Zeke Motta, either Steve Filer or Darius Fleming and two offensive linemen (Lane Clelland is my initial educated guess because he has quick feet…and I saw him out there in practice).
Unit Rankings: 1-12For our No. 1 rated position unit and an explanation of the rankings, click here.
No. 12 Kick and Punt Coverage (detailed above).