Notre Dame’s football program has no problems receiving media coverage. As for kickoff and punt coverage … that’s a different issue.
Notre Dame's kickoff coverage and all-around special teams play will need to be at its best in the home stretch.
Entering this weekend’s game at Pitt, among 123 FBS teams Notre Dame ranks 117th in kickoff coverage defense (26.1 yards per return) and 106th in punt coverage defense (12.1 yards per return). That’s one of the worst combinations nationally this season in those areas.
This year’s punt coverage took a huge hit in the 14-10 victory versus USC when Nelson Agholor had 48-, 16- and 34-yard returns — but fortunately it resulted in setting up only three points for the Trojans.
Last week it was kick coverage that struggled. After the Irish seized early momentum for a 7-0 lead, Navy’s Marcus Thomas returned the ensuing kickoff 44 yards to set up the first Midshipmen touchdown. And after Notre Dame recaptured the lead 38-34 with only 3:47 remaining, Notre Dame’s Kyle Brindza appeared to hit a nearly perfect kickoff that Thomas fielded at his one while pinned against the right sideline. He appeared trapped and seemed destined to be stopped inside his 20 … but broke loose for a 49-yard return, before Brindza and safety John Turner made the stop, to put Navy in excellent position to score the go-ahead touchdown. The Irish defense then made a fourth-and-four stop to save the day.
In Brian Kelly’s first season at Notre Dame, the Irish had one of the best combinations of kick- and punt-return coverage defense, ranking 17th and 20th nationally, respectively, in those categories, although a Tulsa punt return for a score was crucial in its 28-27 upset of Notre Dame. However, kick coverage fell to 77th the past two years.
The kickoff is considered the most violent play in football, the one most susceptible to injuries. That’s one reason why in 2012 the NCAA moved the kickoffs up from the 30-yard line to the 35, providing a better chance for more touchbacks and maybe less chance of injuries.
Kelly agrees that the kickoff requires an aggressive mode — which is what the Irish lacked against Navy.
“Kickoff coverage has a lot to do with being more physical than the return team,” he said. “We've just got to get back to being more physical. We were a little hesitant trying to get off blocks without being more physical. We're looking and feeling our way through it. We're going to go back to just being a little bit more physical on that team and getting guys on there. We maybe got caught up with having too much speed and not enough power on that team.”
During Sunday’s teleconference with the media, Kelly added that he would evaluate the unit over the next 24 hours “and we'll get some guys down there that are going to be a little bit more physical.”
In addition to Turner and Brindza, the Irish kick coverage unit versus Navy was comprised of cornerbacks Lo Wood and Devin Butler, safeties Max Redfield and Eilar Hardy, linebackers Kendall Moore, Anthony Rabasa, Joe Schmidt and Ben Councell (now sidelined for the year with an injury) and receiver James Onwualu.
What changes might occur, if any, will be answered on the field, but improvement will be needed because this month the Irish will encounter two of the nation’s elite kickoff return men in Stanford’s Ty Montgomery and Brigham Young’s Adam Hine.
Stanford is ranked No. 1 in the nation in kickoff returns, with Montgomery ranking No. 2 individually while posting a 32.5 yards per return average, highlighted by touchdown returns in back-to-back weeks against Washington and Utah. BYU is ranked fourth nationally in kickoff return average, with Hine ranking right behind Montgomery with a 31.9 yards per return average.
Brigham Young also is a solid 37th in punt returns with a 10.39 average on 23 attempts, while Pitt is right behind at 38th (10.38). Stanford is 51st, averaging 9.27 yards on 15 tries.
This week’s opponent for Notre Dame, Pitt, last year controlled the field-position game against the Irish while taking a 20-6 lead into the fourth quarter (the average Notre Dame starting point was its 26). This was aided by a 31-yard punt return and a 34-yard kickoff return by the Panthers.
Notre Dame’s best weapon to negate kickoff returns has been Brindza, whose 52 kickoffs have featured 30 touchbacks (57.7 percent). However, November is the time when wind, cold and sometimes leg weariness can set in a little more. Against Navy, only two of Brindza’s seven kickoffs resulted in touchbacks.
The Notre Dame defense saved the USC game, and the offense had to carry the major load against Navy. Sooner or later, special teams will have to do its part, as it did in the hard fought 17-13 win Sept. 21 versus Michigan State, when Brindza’s fourth-quarter punting earned him the game ball.
The good news is the Irish kick return unit led by George Atkinson III ranks 18th nationally and the punt returns with TJ Jones are now a more respectable 61st after placing near the cellar three straight years.
When the stakes go up in November, special teams often spell the difference.