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Making Special Teams Special Again

When Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly spoke Saturday about the progression of his football team midway through spring practices, he mentioned many returning starters and how they’ve taken their games to the next level. There was also optimism concerning the next men in on the defensive side of the ball.

Davonte' Neal served as Notre Dame's primary punt returner as a freshman in 2012.

Guys like quarterback Everett Golson, left tackle Zack Martin, receiver TJ Jones and tight end Troy Niklas on offense, and linebackers Jarrett Grace and Ben Councell all earned high praise.

“Those are just pieces. I don’t have all 22 yet, feeling like we’ve got this thing together,” Kelly said.

Beyond the 22 is a question mark that’s been hovering over special teams for several years now, most notably in the punt return game. The Fighting Irish ranked 116th nationally in 2012 in that category, averaging a paltry 2.19 yards per return on 21 attempts. Success in that area doesn’t necessarily translate to overwhelming success in the win-loss column, with teams like Boston College (21.69), Nevada (15.13), Missouri (15.04), Duke (14.92) and North Carolina (14.17) all finishing in the top 10 in punt return but combining for only 28 victories. Boston College led the way nationally and went just 2-10 last year.

But it’s an aspect of the game that’s crucial for Notre Dame to retain its spot among the elite. Of the teams that finished among the top 10 in the final Associated Press poll, only Georgia (7.52) and Notre Dame averaged less than 10 yards per return, and only Notre Dame had fewer than 200 total return yards with 46. Five schools compiled 299 or more return yards.

“It’s a process just like offense and defense,” special teams coordinator Scott Booker said. “It’s ultimately going to come to a head whenever we go out there against Temple. We’re going to know who our punt returner is. It’s a process right now, so we’re going to go through everybody and put guys in situations where we’ll try to simulate as much as we can as a live, full-speed deal and see what they do.”

The cold weather this spring has forced the Irish indoors, but Booker said plenty of work as gotten done in determining candidates for that spot. Kelly went on record at the beginning of spring practices that his desire is to staff key special teams positions with frontline skill players. Booker said a number of guys are getting looks, including Jones, running back Amir Carlisle (before a collarbone injury), safety Austin Collinsworth (who returned punts in high school) and safety/receiver C.J. Prosise. There are others that weren’t mentioned publicly.

“I think that will be narrowed down when spring is over with, but we’re definitely putting guys out there to try and return punts,” Booker added.

The return game isn’t the only point of emphasis when it comes to special teams. Notre Dame’s looking for more momentum shifting plays across the board.

“Some of our special teams lacked the big plays last year,” Booker explained. “In punt, obviously, the game-changing play of getting the ball back. In the Alabama game, we did get the ball back but we got called for a penalty. We shouldn’t just concede every time you punt the ball that they’re going to get the ball. Let’s attack the ball, let’s tackle, let’s strip the ball and try to get the ball back.

“Also a game-changing play for the punt team is to down the ball inside the 5-yard line, because then you really give the defense an opportunity to score either a safety, sack-fumble, touchdown or anything like that. Those are the game changing plays I think coach is talking about in punt.”

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