Starting a game at Notre Dame Stadium doesn’t mean just teeing the football up and booting it down the field. It means Fighting Irish students start a cheer that resonates throughout the stadium by the time the return man catches the ball. This year, it is a start for new faces among Notre Dame assistant coaches to show their talents to the rest of the college football world.
By Kevin Hunt
It’s one of the most underrated parts of the game. The third phase that determines the rest – special teams. Often times the kicking and return games provide more true game-changing moments than offense or defense can provide. Coach Mike Elston is Notre Dame’s key to getting these types of plays.
Head Coach Brian Kelly brought a slew of assistants from Cincinnati, including Elston, who will serve as defensive line coach along with being the Special Teams Coordinator. The Bearcats ranked higher than the Irish in three major special teams statistical categories last year: punt returns, kick returns and net punting. In terms of field position, these are what provide for winning teams when offense and defense fail. And with a new quarterback and a still unproven (and somewhat unknown) defense, Notre Dame needs Elston to bring a punch that’s more than special.
The Irish bring back a steady group of kickoff return men, accounting for all but three returns last year. Speedy sophomore Theo Riddick was the main threat, but only averaged 23 yards per return, good for 79th best in the nation. In Cincinnati, Elston was blessed with the talents of Mardy Gilyard, who ranked 11th in the country in both 2008 and 2009 as a kick returner (and is now a member of the St. Louis Rams).
Riddick has a similar build as Gilyard and, generally speaking, has even more speed. Improving on the 23 yards per return of a year ago will depend on Riddick’s maturation and Elston’s ability to teach Riddick the ways of the return man while also developing a solid blocking scheme ahead of the return. Based on presumed success of these two things alone, it’s not a stretch to say that Notre Dame should jump into the top 10 in the country in kickoff return average in 2010.
Notre Dame was 20th in the country with an average of nearly 13 yards per punt return last year, its highest special teams ranking. But that was in the hands of now-Seattle Seahawk (and late-night donut lover) Golden Tate, who provided nearly 20 yards per game in returns. One Irish problem is that, as of now, there’s no clear replacement for Tate for returning punts.
Wide receiver Michael Floyd may step into Tate’s spot (as return man and #1 receiver), but he’s had injury issues already and fear of another one from the extra contact in the return game could cause ND to shy away from using Floyd as anything but a wide out. Junior receiver John Goodman had a handful of punt returns last year, averaging just over 11 yards per return. The title of punt returner might be coupled with being the #2 wide receiver, a competition likely coming down to Goodman and senior Duval Kamara.
Obviously there’s even more to special teams than this, but these are the areas that involve field position, which will be a huge part of Notre Dame football this season. Mike Elston isn’t a name that’s known to everyone in the country right now. But don’t be surprised to see a story on an NBC Fighting Irish pre-game show that features the talents and success of Elston’s special teams units in both Cincinnati and, now, in South Bend. It starts with the first time they tee it up this year.
This is the second in a nine-week preview leading up to Notre Dame football’s season opener against Purdue. Read the first part by clicking here.Follow paulmbanks