Notre Dame’s offense and defense certainly haven’t been up to snuff this season, but special teams should actually shoulder most of the blame for the Irish’s disappointing start. With the punt and kick return units continually stranding the Irish in poor field position, both the offensive and defensive units are constantly driving uphill.
There has been only one positive on the Notre Dame special teams squad this season.
George Atkinson has been electric on kickoff returns, taking kicks to the house against both Michigan State and USC. He leads an Irish kick return unit that has averaged 24 yards per runback, good for a respectable 25th in the FBS.
Beyond that, Notre Dame’s third phase has been absolutely atrocious.
David Ruffer, who came out of nowhere to nearly snag the Lou Groza Award last season, has regressed. He’s split the uprights with just five of his nine field goal attempts. That 55 percent mark ranks him 102nd in the nation. In the balance of just one offseason, the Irish field goal team has inexplicably gone from reliable to reprehensible.
The punting unit has been even worse.
Ben Turk has somehow held the starting punter’s job at Notre Dame for nearly three years, yet he’s never actually proved to be particularly skilled at punting a football. With Turk leading the charge, Notre Dame ranks 101st in the nation in punting, averaging just 38 yards per kick.
The coverage unit hasn’t been much better, allowing an average of 17 yards per return (117th in the FBS) and three returns of over 20 yards.
Though it may seem impossible, things have been even worse when Notre Dame’s opponents have punted.
The Irish haven’t even been able to find a player who can consistently catch the ball, let alone one who can do anything with it on the return. Theo Riddick and John Goodman have been given ample opportunity, but neither has been able to give Notre Dame any kind of production.
On the 10 punts that the Irish have returned, Notre Dame has gained a total of three yards. Unsurprisingly, that total ranks dead last in the nation.
A deficient special teams unit may seem like a small problem, but those lost yards add up fast. Let’s take a look at a hypothetical representation of the effect of terrible special teams:
Notre Dame receives a kickoff at the 5-yard line, returns it to the 30. Notre Dame gains 10 yards, but the drive stalls and the Irish are forced to punt from their own 40-yard line. The opponent catches the punt at its own 22-yard line and returns it to the 39. The Notre Dame defense allows five yards before forcing the opponent to punt from its own 44-yard line. Notre Dame catches the punt at its own 15 and goes nowhere.
Just like that, Notre Dame has lost 15 yards of field position, even as it’s gained twice as many yards on offense as its opponent.
That’s how a team that’s outgained its opponents by an average of 65 yards per game can have a 4-3 record.
It’s a big problem. What can Notre Dame do about it?
At kicker, Brian Kelly needs to stick with David Ruffer. Ruffer has proven over a full season that he’s more than capable of handling the job. I think that’s earned him a little extra slack.
At punter, Ben Turk needs to hit the bench. Freshman Kyle Brindza wasn’t recruited specifically as a punter, but he handled the punting duties for his high school team, and frankly, he’d have to be pretty terrible not to be an upgrade over Turk. At this point, Brindza deserves a shot.
The punt returner position is a little more complicated. Let’s run down the candidates.
John Goodman has served as a good hands specialist for most of his career, but he provides little in the way of explosive running ability. Since he’s spent most of this season tarnishing his reputation as a reliable catcher, he doesn’t have much value as a punt returner at this point.
Michael Floyd is the most recent addition to this group. He hasn’t had much of an opportunity, but Kelly has mentioned that he’d like to use Floyd to jump-start his punt return unit.
While I understand that Floyd is supremely talented, his size and strength really won’t to much for him in a role that rewards open-field agility. I don’t see a fit here.
George Atkinson has been great on kickoffs; could he translate that ability to the punt team?
Atkinson’s return touchdowns were more about vision and straight-line speed than they were about agility in space.
Though many great returners are able to excel on both punts and kickoffs, those two duties require different skill sets. Atkinson is fantastic when he’s allowed to build up a head of steam, but I doubt he’d be as effective when catching the ball from a standstill.
That leaves Theo Riddick. He was Kelly’s original choice as Notre Dame’s primary punt returner, but was banished from the role after coming down with a vicious case of fumblitis.
Even with his butter-fingered past, Riddick is still the best option for Kelly. His athletic skill set is a perfect fit for punt returns; Riddick has the most impressive combination of agility and acceleration of any Irish player.
It’s likely that his fumbling problems are more mental than physical. A vote of confidence from his coach could go a long way toward alleviating those woes.
As bad as things look now, the Notre Dame special teams unit is still salvageable. With a few adjustments and a greater commitment to discipline, Notre Dame could have a solid squad in all phases of the kicking game.
Notre Dame has plenty of talent. It’s up to Kelly and his staff to put them in a position to succeed.