It is on special teams where the stars of tomorrow initially make their mark, or where walk-ons become folk heroes, from kickers Reggie Ho of the 1988 national champs and David Ruffer in 2010, to gunner Mike Anello (2007-09) or Chris Salvi this year
Freshman George Atkinson III excelled on both returns and coverage for the Irish.
The top two in this category this year could have gone either way, depending on your perspective:
1. GEORGE ATKINSON III
The freshman’s game-changing ability was rewarded by a number of national honors for his work on special teams, including an SI.com All-America honorable mention nod. He returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and finished the regular season with a return average of 27.4 yards and a total of 822 yards, which is tied for second all time at Notre Dame.
Look at the names he joins as the only other Irish players the past 60 years who returned two kickoffs for scores in one season: John Lattner (1953), Nick Eddy (1966), Tim Brown (1986), Raghib “Rocket” Ismail (1988 and 1989), and Allen Rossum (1997). Lattner and Brown were Heisman Trophy winners in 1953 and 1987, respectively, Ismail was the runner-up in 1990 but did win the Walter Camp Award, and Eddy finished third in the 1966 balloting.
As for Rossum, one of the top return men in NFL history, he set the NCAA record for most touchdowns on runbacks with nine (three kickoffs, three punts and three interceptions). An individual must have one in each category to qualify. Atkinson and Ismail are the only two Irish who returned two kickoffs in a season as freshmen.
With Atkinson, his 89-yard kickoff return against Michigan State was crucial in a 31-13 triumph against Michigan State, and his 96-yard tally restored temporary life to the Irish versus USC by allowing them to trail only 17-10 at halftime after getting dominated most of the first half.
While Atkinson’s work as a return man alone was notable, the tipping point is that he also was one of the top coverage men. During the regular season, he tied Salvi for third on the team in special teams tackles with eight. Then in the Champs Sports Bowl, he ran down FSU’s Lamarcus Joyner on a 77-yard kickoff return. That stop helped limit the Seminoles to three points instead of seven to keep the Irish lead at 14-3 before eventually falling, 18-14. The ability of Atkinson to excel in both areas — returns and coverage — is a combination seldom found anywhere.
Look for the coaching staff to try to find him more ways to have his hands on the ball on offense, where he had only nine carries and one catch in 2011.
2. AUSTIN COLLINSWORTH
At the 2011 Football Awards Show held Dec. 9, the Notre Dame coaching staff named the sophomore dime back as the Special Teams Player of the Year. He recorded a team high 15 tackles (13 on kicks, two on punts). Blue & Gold Illustrated named Collinsworth the Special Teams Player of the Game versus Michigan, Purdue, Navy and Wake Forest.
• At Michigan (Sept. 10), he made two tackles on kickoff coverage at the Wolverine 23-yard line, and a third at the 11.
• At Purdue (Oct. 1), Collinsworth made three more tackles, this time at the 25-, 20- and 22-yard line of the Boilermakers.
• Versus Navy (Nov. 5), he made three tackles on special teams, including one as a gunner on punts, forced a fumble, and returned a kickoff 33 yards.
• At Wake Forest, he returned the first kickoff to Notre Dame 41 yards to set up the initial Irish score and added a second return of 26 yards. Then on the first Irish kickoff in the second half he dropped top Demon Deacons return man Lovell Jackson deep in his territory for only a 13-yard return.
In high school, Collinsworth’s special teams work was limited to returning kickoffs and punts (where he had a combined five touchdowns in his junior year alone), but at Notre Dame he immediately established himself among the new coaching staff for his toughness and sharp concentration while playing all 13 games in 2010 as a freshman on the coverage units. In 2011 as a sophomore he raised it another level.
“It just comes with the competitive edge,” replied Collinsworth on how he’s established his niche at Notre Dame. “You’ve got to want to be the best at everything you do. And I’ve always had that my whole life … [Special teams is] really just defense. You just have to find a way to make a play, make a tackle.”
Positives also have happened when the ball has found his hands, which have been infrequent. The first and only time he fielded a ball as a freshman was the opening kickoff in the Sun Bowl — a 34-yard return to his 46 that set up a quick 7-0 Irish lead.
“I got in [special teams coordinator Mike Elston’s] ear a little bit about, ‘Hey, maybe if you put me back there I can show you something,’ ” recalled Collinsworth humorously. “He gave me a chance and I tried to make the best of it and show him that I should be catching a lot more balls back there.”
He’ll be attempting to do the same in 2012 on punt returns, where the Irish ranked dead last in 2011 while totaling three return yards during the regular season.
“I’m lobbying right now,” admitted Collinsworth in November. “I’m trying to get back there. I probably haven’t talked to [Elston] about it as much as I should, but hopefully they’ll give me a chance.”
HONORABLE MENTION: Troy Niklas, Bennett Jackson and Chris Salvi
Atkinson and Collinsworth — both sons of former NFL stars — were the top two standouts, but this trio merits recognition for its yearlong efforts.
At 6-6 1/2, 250 pounds, freshman outside linebacker/defensive end Niklas loomed as quite an intimidating presence running full speed on kick coverage. Within the second week of training camp in August, he already was a starter. His 10 tackles on special teams during the regular season were second only to Collinsworth, and it was a factor in him being named the runner-up to safety Jamoris Slaughter as our Most Versatile Player.
Sophomore cornerback Jackson led the Irish in 2010 in kick returns and tied for the team lead in special teams tackles. This year, Atkinson took on Jackson’s return role, but Jackson still was a mainstay on all the units, recording five stops on kickoffs and two more on punts.
As for Salvi, his recognition as game captain against Navy following the USC loss and the subsequent and much publicized “my guys” comment by head coach Brian Kelly provided a morale boost on the entire team. Like Anello, though, Salvi was far from a novelty item. He and Atkinson tied for third in special teams tackles (8) during the regular season, and it was Salvi who took out two Michigan State defenders with one block on Atkinson’s 89-yard score against the Spartans.
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