One-Third of the Game

First-year Irish coaches have used special teams to turn the tide in their inaugural seasons.

In 1986, Lou Holtz took over an Irish program in disrepair. The long road back to respectability and competitiveness began with the aspect of the game referred to in coaching circles as "hidden yardage" - those gained in the comparison of a matchups punts and kickoffs.

That '86 squad saw two kick-offs returned for touchdowns as well as a game-changing 56-yard punt return that provided Holtz's hard-luck Irish with a chip-shot winning field goal to conclude his first season in dramatic fashion.

Holtz had a future Hall of Famer named Tim Brown to do his return bidding, but of note was a coverage group that limited opponents to a season-long kickoff return of 35 yards.

Irish fans rightly lament the loss of special teams punch in the program since the end of the Holtz era – an 11-season span in which the Irish enjoyed an obscene advantage in touchdowns scored of 28-1.

Since, the Irish have enjoyed intermittent success, notably in the BCS season of 2000 (Bob Davie's five Irish squads held an 8-5 edge in punt/kick-offs returned for a score during his tenure), a group that held a 3-0 special teams TD advantage while dominating opponents in punt coverage to finish fourth nationally.

With headliner Vontez Duff as his return man, Tyrone Willingham's first squad held a 4-1 TD edge, and was complimented by a coverage group that stymied opponents while creating turnovers, touchdowns and short-field situations for the Irish offense.

Charlie Weis' first team in 2005 thrived off the special teams exploits of punt returner Tom Zbikowski (14.2 average, 2 TD) while limiting opponents to nearly eight yards fewer per return than Zbikowski gained.

Weis' 2008 crew, with a nod to the speed, fundamentals and innate desire of David Bruton and Mike Anello, led the nation in kick-off coverage, holding 13 opponents to a ridiculous 16.7 yards per return average. With Bruton and Anello as the gunners, the punt coverage unit performed similarly, creating multiple turnovers while holding opponents to a six-yard average.

Success, both special teams and otherwise, was fleeting for the program's three recent staffs.

Blame it on the man in charge or his assigned tutors; blame it on a breakdown in fundamentals, the lack of desire to hit, or a simple decline in team speed: but Notre Dame has been inconsistent at best over the last seven seasons in the sport's third, game-changing phase, yielding nine touchdowns while scoring seven.

In 2010, special teams coordinator Mike Elston is charged with bringing each of the four units back to the top of the college football world.

Instant Impact

"I'm excited about our return game. We're going to be dynamic there. We've got some dynamic players." – Head Coach Brian Kelly

On the third occasion in as many opportunities dating back to last December, Brian Kelly emphasized the need for excellence in the return game. Defensive line coach Mike Elston will again coordinate Kelly's special teams – Elston's Cincinnati group ranked second nationally in kick return average (including three scores from two players) and in the top 20 of 120 FBS teams in punt return average last fall.

The Irish haven't returned a regular season kickoff for a touchdown since 2002.

"The great thing is we've identified quite a few guys that can go back there for kickoff return," Elston said. "Some big names that you'll recognize: Armando Allen has scored a touchdown (in the Hawaii Bowl) for Notre Dame on a kick return. For us to not get the ball in his hands at some point would be a bit of a mistake."

"We've got another 5 or 6 guys between him: Jonas Gray, Cierre Wood, Theo Riddick…and then we're going to open it up to everybody. There's a lot of speed and athletic ability among the freshmen: Austin Collinsworth, Bennett Jackson, (sophomore) Robby Toma could go back there; TJ Jones, so we have a lot of different guys."

Since the end of the 2002 season, Notre Dame's kick return team has ranked 75th, 87th, 89th, 39th, 94th, 53rd and 66th nationally.

Breakout Brigade: The quick change element of the punt return game – when one missed tackle can significantly determine field position or change the complexion of a tight contest – has long favored the Irish. From Nick Eddy to a young Dave Duerson to Tim Brown to Ricky Watters to Rocket Ismail to Allen Rossum to Julius Jones to Joey Getherall to Vontez Duff to Tommy Zbikowski; few schools can match Notre Dame's 50-year history of dynamic punt return performers. (After a few too many fair catches last fall, Golden Tate eventually added his name to the list of touchdown makers with his dramatic return in a comeback effort vs. Pittsburgh.)

In 2010, fans are sure to see more than a couple competitors fielding punts.

"There'll be a few different guys," Elston offered. "You'll see (John) Goodman back there catching punts, Dan McCarthy, Harrison Smith…for multiple reasons. They're very savvy back there in the back of the defense the majority of the game anyway – at least the two safeties are – and we can utilize them in different situations such as (leaving the defense on the field) defending a punt that might be a fake."

The More the Merrier: The staff's philosophy suggests ample participation from those that compete daily – those that desire to find a way on the field in what is expected to be a turnaround season for the program.

"Coach Kelly and the staff has always felt that the more guys you can utilize on special teams, the better off you're going to be… the better the ‘buy-in' is going to be," Elston explained, before adding, "That doesn't mean that we're going to utilize a kickoff specialist that's not the best guy just to get him on the field.

"(But) the way it looks right now is we could have a punter in Ben Turk, a kick-off specialist in (David) Ruffer, and a field goal specialist in Nick Tausch which would be three different guys for each unit, which would be great."

Tausch broke a near-three decade record for consecutive field goals as a true freshman last year. Ruffer was the walk-on savior, drilling 5 of 5 field goals including a clutch overtime boot when Tausch was lost due to a leg injury in November.

It's the sophomore Turk that likely has the most to prove to Irish fans.

"He's grown in so many areas, confidence being one of them," Elston noted. "I wasn't around last year but I did watch every single snap and I saw the struggles that he went through. We've been able to sit down and talk about a few technique things that will clean it up, but for the most part it was confidence and his ability to go out there and think about what he needs to do at that moment."

While Turk's final numbers (38.2 per punt with a 34.7 net) weren't stellar, he finished the season on a high note, nailing five punts vs. Connecticut for 46, 50, 50, 48 and 41 yards and three to close the season at Stanford for 53, 37 (fair catch) and 39.

"He had a very nice spring game (punts of 45, 48, 50 and 50) and we expect good things from Ben," Elston added. "I think he's going to have a real good season."

Turk's chief competition at the position will come from former Irish placekicker Brandon Walker, who's attempting to return after missing all of 2009 with a back injury and incoming walk-on Mike Grieco.

"He was here on campus for summer school but didn't work out with the team," Elston said. "We're allowed to work a few guys out (in the spring) and he did a real nice job so he'll be another candidate."

2009: The Year of the Return

If you're a regular reader you're aware that the No. 1 ranked Irish kick coverage unit of 2008 pulled a near 180 last season – allowing two crucial kick return touchdowns in losses to Michigan and Connecticut then going into a shell vs. the talented but hardly dominant return unit from Stanford: first allowing a 41-yard return then intentionally kicking short on five of the next seven occasions with an out-of-bounds error intermixed.

Consider the unit Elston's first in line for correction.

"I think the first thing we have to identify is to make sure the right guys are on the field," he began. "Whoever the kick-off specialist is, the other 10 players have to have the savvy, the ‘want-to' to run down the field to strike somebody, get off the block and make the tackle. We are going to make sure that they have that.

"Secondly, it's simplifying what we do. The guys' (must have the) ability on offense, defense and special teams to learn the package, to learn from mistakes, and to run down the field full-speed without any hesitation, knowing exactly what the coaches want (them) to do. That will allow them to eliminate big plays.

"We keep it very simple," Elston offered of his approach to kick coverage. "We do one or two things on kick-off (coverage) and I think we do it very well."

After not allowing a kick return touchdown from 1977 through 1997, the Notre Dame program has allowed nine since, including seven this decade.

Depth is the Key: For fans that subscribe to the Holtz-ian notion that starters make the best special teams performers, rest assured: if necessary, you'll see the likes of Manti Te'o, Jamoris Slaughter, Armando Allen, et al contributing heavily to the 2010 specialty units.

"Coach Kelly's philosophy is if we need to activate starters on our special teams for offense or defense that they'll need to take breaks on offense or defense; they won't be pulled from the special teams," Elston said. "There are some times that will utilize starters, for example on the punt team; (or) our kick-off return specialist, for example Armando Allen, is going to be a dynamic running back, but he's going to have to go on the back end of kick-off return and return some balls."

Starter, backup, freshman and upperclassman – the 2010 Irish specialty units will employ the best man for the job in an effort to take back Phase Three.

Note: Click the links below for our Pre-Camp Unit rankings of the three major special teams groups.

Coverage Units

Return Units

Field Goal Unit


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