There were two elements of consistent football excellence during Lou Holtz’s 11-year reign at Notre Dame from 1986-96.
One was the offensive line, especially when it came time to hunker down with the physical running game. The other was special teams, which repeatedly made a significant difference in most of his marquee games, especially early in the season when the kicking game at many programs can be sloppy.
During the national title run in 1988, for example, Notre Dame scored only one touchdown on offense in the first two games (Michigan and Michigan State). Yet it defeated the Big Ten champ Wolverines while scoring all 19 points on special teams (an 81-yard punt return by Ricky Watters and four field goals by Reggie Ho). The following week the Irish turned a flat first half around with more special teams excellence, highlighted by a blocked punt by freshman Raghib “Rocket” Ismail, who would later earn greater fame as a return man.
Besides seeing his return men bring back a couple dozen touchdowns during his career, a Holtz-coached Irish team did not permit a kick or punt return for a score in his last 10 seasons.
So it comes as no surprise that son Skip also has had that “special” extra in his South Florida program with cousins Lindsey Lamar and Terrence Mitchell, both of whom played at nearby Tampa Hillsborough High School.
Last year the Bulls scored twice on kick returns and twice more off punts, although the latter tallies did not come from the top return man. Lamar was named the Big East Special Teams Player of the Year, while as a freshman Mitchell averaged 11 yards per return on punts to rank 23rd nationally.
For good measure, kicker Maikon Bonani converted 17 of his 21 field goals, including all 13 inside 40. He also drilled three from 46 yards or longer.
Last year, special teams touchdowns by Michigan State (fake field goal in overtime) and Tulsa (punt return, plus blocked PAT returned for two points) proved pivotal in two Notre Dame defeats. Especially in an opening game, Irish head coach Brian Kelly appreciates the tone and sharpness special teams must have. He points to NFL exhibition games he has watched where special teams struggles are conspicuous.
“It’s sloppy tackling, it’s missed assignments, it’s poor special teams,” said Kelly of August preparations and openers. “It gets you in trouble early in the season, so those have been the focus areas for us.”
The Irish head coach even went so far as to say that if he has to rest Irish playmaker Theo Riddick, it’s going to have to come when Notre Dame is on offense, because his abilities on special teams cannot be sacrificed. Like everyone else associated with the program, Kelly wants to see an upgrade from last year’s Irish national rankings in punt returns (100th) and kick returns (75th), and to do that, he believes Riddick must be the top return man on punt and kicks.
“Maybe ball security is not No. 1 now — let’s get an electric play,” special teams coach Mike Elston said.
The lone electric Irish punt return last year came in the opener against Purdue. With Purdue backed up at its 21 and the Irish ahead 13-3, senior running back Armando Allen returned a punt 38 yards, and five plays later Notre Dame was up 20-3 and much more in command.
There might be other occasions where the priority might be to just catch the punt and play it safe. Much depends on how the offense and defense are functioning, or as Kelly said, going by “feel” of the game.
For now, though, Kelly is confident that the offense will still be plenty functional with junior Robby Toma in the lineup at slot receiver in place of Riddick … but he does not want to sacrifice special teams play. Riddick was not in the special teams mix last season, but Kelly said that will not be the case in 2011.
“What I've said to Theo is he'll take his blows on offense,” said Kelly, who could use Riddick in the slot, out wide or even in the backfield in the Leprecat formation. “If he needs a play or two [off] because he's playing special teams, he'll take it on offense. We have great confidence in Robby to go in there and play a series.
“Theo, in his mindset, he has to be a huge impact for us in special teams … that's the way we have approached it with Theo and the way his thought process should be.”
In 2011, Kelly and his staff want to see more “special deliveries” made by the Irish on Saturdays.