Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Alive and Kickin? | by Pat

With the new starters across the board on offense and defense getting most of the pre-season attention, the Irish special teams units aren't much more than an afterthought. However, there's a reason that Charlie assigned all the assistant coaches to help out on special teams this year. As a new defense finds its footing and a revamped offense attempts to live up to the lofty output of previous years, it will be hard for ND to duplicate the +16.6 average margin of victory from last year. Games will probably be tighter, and the margin for error in special teams will be much smaller. How well ND is able to pin teams deep with kicks and punts and turn failed drives into points via field goals just might be the biggest factor in how many games ND winds up winning in 2007.

Let's take a quick spin through the Irish special teams and see what we know (and what we don't know) heading into 2007.

Field Goals. This is probably the #1 question on special teams, so let's get to it first. Last year, kicker Carl Gioia tied for last in the NCAA in made field goals per game, and the Irish were second in the nation in 4th down conversion attempts. In other words, Charlie avoided field goal attempts like the plague.

With a young offense bound to make mistakes, going for it on fourth might not be as attractive, so ND is going to need to find a good kicker. Gioia has moved on, and so far the contenders -- walk-on Nate Whitaker, sophomore Ryan Burkhart, and freshman Brandon Walker -- have a combined zero collegiate attempts under their belt. Whitaker appeared to be leading for the job in the spring, but I imagine it will be an open audition for the trio right up until the Georgia Tech game.

In another aspect of the field goal unit, we'll have to see who will replace sure-handed holder Jeff Samardzija. Evan Sharpley did the honors in the spring game, he's my guess to have the job. Hopefully he'll get a chance to run one into the end zone like Jeff did against Purdue last year.

And on the field goal block unit, it will be tough to match Derek Landri's impressive four blocked field goals, but look for Trevor Laws to once again get his hands on at least one kick.

Kickoffs. With the new NCAA rule pushing back kickoffs from the 35 yard line to the 30, it's safe to say that Irish fans shouldn't expect many touchbacks in 2007. Burkhart took the majority of kickoffs last year and is credited with 8 touchbacks on 45 attempts. What the stats don't show however is that two of those touchbacks were in the high altitude of Colorado Springs, one was a ball that hit the 12 and rolled through the receiver's legs, and one was after a penalty moved the kickoff to the 50. Credit him with only a legit four.

Taking advantage of the same google map technology that led to the recruiting map, we charted Burkhart's kickoffs in ND stadium from last year (cough...nerd alert). As you can see from the map, when those kickoff starting spots are moved back five yards, Burkhart is going to have trouble reaching past the 10 yard line consistently (especially towards the south end zone) without noticeable off-season improvement. This is why Brandon Walker has a very good chance at taking over the starting kickoff duties from day one.

With the new kickoff depth and ND's uncertain kicker situation, it will be doubly important that the Irish kick coverage team improve. ND was one of only six teams last year to allow more than one kickoff return touchdown, although to be fair ND had many more kickoffs than most teams. Bringing down last year's 19.95 yard return average will help a young Irish team in the field position game immensely.

One last kickoff issue that I hope is addressed is that of the onside kick. We all hope that ND won't have to resort to it, but if they do, it better not look as ugly as the one Brian Cushing returned for a touchdown last season.

Kickoff Returns. Here's some hope for improvement. Last year ND's kick return game wasn't anything special, as ND failed to return a single kick for a touchdown, and the overall team average was 39th best in the nation. But special teams is one area where a talented youngster (even a true freshman) can make a big impact. David Grimes was respectable last year (his return average was good for 28th in the nation) but I expect him to cede his kick returning duties as he takes on the role of #1 wide receiver.

In his place is a collection of very fast and talented players who just might be able to give this special teams unit a noticeable improvement. Among George West, Darrin Walls, Munir Prince, Barry Gallup, Armando Allen, and Golden Tate, ND has a number of speedy options to try out this fall. If the blocking is able to make a few holes (and with the increase in talented and athletic underclassmen who typically make up special teams units, that's a reasonable assumption) I'm betting ND is going to get a kickoff return for a touchdown somewhere along the line in 2007.

Punting. This is one area where ND should be fine: Geoff Price returns after having the 5th best punting average in the nation last year. He's in line for the post-season punting awards and All-American honors, and he'll continue to be a weapon in the battle for field position. ND should also have some decent depth behind him with preferred walk-on/ND baseball pitcher Eric Maust, as well as Brandon Walker, who also punts.

On punt coverage, hopefully David Bruton will continue his headhunting ways, tracking down opposing punt returners and dropping them for little or no gains. If his duties at free safety get him taken off the punt coverage unit, then it will be up to one of the fast sophomores or freshman to follow in his footsteps.

We'll have to see if ND has another fake punt play up their sleeve after LSU showed that the direct snap, up-the-middle run that worked against Penn State isn't always going to work.

Punt Returns. 2007: Year of the Zibby? After averaging 14.1 yards per punt return in 2005, good for 12th best in the nation, ND's punt return average dipped to 7.4 yards, or 88th best, in 2006. Why the big drop?

Well, a big factor was Zibby's injury against Purdue at the end of September, on a punt return of all things. When Zibby was pulled from punt return duties for the month of October, ND averaged a scant 1.8 yards per punt return. That's bad no matter how you slice it. If Zibby goes down again, ND will need a solid replacement. Maybe this is where guys like Tate, Allen, and Gallup could make an impact.

ND has also had some luck the past two years blocking punts, with Chase Anastacio getting a paw on an impressive three punts in 2005, and Steve Quinn coming up with one against Southern Cal last year. Let's hope that streak continues.