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#2 Coverage UnitsNotre Dame's coverage units struggled mightily in 2009, allowing two kick return touchdowns in close losses to Michigan and Connecticut while allowing Stanford starting field position at the 36-yard line following seven kickoffs in the season-finale.
The Irish weren't much better covering punts, finishing 105th nationally allowing nearly 13 yards per return.
The improvement of both units from '09 to this fall was staggering with Notre Dame finishing No. 16 in kick coverage and a deceivingly low No. 32 defending punt returners, only one of which broke free for more than four yards over the entire 12-game slate.
Starters and key reserves: David Ruffer (Kickoff); Ben Turk (Punter); Jordan Cowart (Long-snapper); Bennett Jackson, Steve Filer, Austin Collinsworth, Brian Smith, Robert Blanton, Dan Fox, Patrick Coughlin, Chris Salvi, Zeke Motta, Prince Shembo, Danny Spond, Lo Wood (Coverage).
IrishEyes' pre-season rank: No. 12 (of 12)
Quote to note: "I think we had given up, I don't know what the stats were, maybe four or five yards in total punt return average. It was ungodly." – Head coach Brian Kelly noting the punt coverage group's high level of play with the exception of Damaris Johnson's singular damaging return in Game Nine.
By the numbers: Two numbers stand out: 59 and 1. The latter signifies the total aggregate number of punt return yards allowed by the Irish in 11 separate games this season. The former equals the game-changing, nearly season-crippling yardage total gained by Tulsa's Damaris Johnson on a punt return touchdown in the Golden Hurricane's 28-27 win over the Irish on October 31.
Johnson also notched a 10-yard return in that contest and a three-yard venture, giving him 72 of the 73 total yards allowed by the Irish punt coverage unit in 2010. Because of Johnson, opponents collectively averaged 6.2 yards per return vs. ND, good for 32nd in the nation.
The kick coverage group suffered no such breakdown and finished 16th nationally allowing just 19.57 per return. The long opponent return of 2010 was a 38-yard run back by USC's Robert Woods in the season-finale. Only six returns exceeded 29 yards vs. the ND kick coverage unit.
Youth was served: Individually, junior Steve Filer led the coverage units in total tackles, notching 11 total (9 kick-off). It was the second straight season Filer led the charge after posting 12 ST tackles in '09.
Freshman Bennett Jackson finished a close second with 9 total ST tackles (8 covering kicks). Jackson recorded four solo stops in his collegiate debut vs. Purdue, at one point blowing by would-be blockers for there consecutive open-field stops.
Junior cornerback Robert Blanton finished third with 6 tackles. Blanton added a blocked punt, scoop and score in the 28-3 win over Utah.
Next in line was a trio of disparate athletes: senior Brian Smith, true freshman Austin Collinsworth and walk-on Patrick Coughlin all tallied five ST stops. Collinsworth also caused a fumble in kick coverage vs. Utah (below).
Sophomore Zeke Motta (4); freshman Prince Shembo (3); freshman Lo Wood (2); junior walk-on Chris Salvi (2), and the kicker, Ruffer (2) also contributed throughout the season while long-snapper Jordan Cowart, safety Jamoris Slaughter, wide receiver Daniel Smith, linebacker Danny Spond, linebacker Kerry Neal, linebacker David Posluszny and safety Dan McCarthy each recorded a stop. Smith also recovered a fumble.
Aiding the effort: From 2007 through 2009, Notre Dame kickers recorded three touchbacks. In 2010, Ruffer drilled 9 and upped his KO average to 64.6 per attempt, a 2-yard increase over last season.
Sophomore Ben Turk hit a net of 38.2 yards per punt (up nearly three yards from 2009), recording a long of 56 yards (six of Turk's punts sailed 50+) while dropping 23 inside the opponents' 20-yard line vs. just three touchbacks. Of Turk's 64 punts, 22 resulted in fair catches.
Best moments: In addition to Bennett Jackson's aforementioned four solo stops vs. Purdue, Notre Dame's coverage units dominated in the 28-3 win over Utah.
- Blanton recorded the team's first block punt touchdown since 2008 (performing the trio of block, recover, score as a solo act).
- On the second half's opening kick-off, Austin Collinsworth caused a fumbled kick return (recovered by fellow frosh Daniel Smith) that led to an Irish touchdown just one player later
- The punt coverage group held the nation's best return man – Shaky Smithson – to minus 2 PR yards and 43 KR yards (plus a fumble).
Moment to forget: With just over five minutes remaining in the third quarter and the Irish holding a precarious 27-18 lead, punter Ben Turk flat lined a 37-yard offering to Tulsa senior Damaris Johnson. Catching the ball at his own 41 with at least one full second prior to contact, Johnson split the unblocked tandem of Steve Filer and Brian Smith, took one cut to slip by Bennett Jackson t the second line of defense, cut inside Robert Blanton's attempt at containment over the left side, then out-ran a hustling Jackson the remainder of the way down the Golden Hurricane sideline for a 59-yard score.
The touchdown cut Notre Dame's lead to two, 27-25 and was the only second half touchdown scored by the visitors in their 28-27 upset. No other punt returner managed more than four yards on a single return vs. the Irish in 2010.
In reserve: Sophomore kicker Nick Tausch and classmate Ben Turk also contributed to the kick-off team. Tausch booted seven kickoffs at a 55.0-yard average while Turk, the team's punter, hit four for 55.5-per kick.
Class status: Ruffer can apply for a 5th-year of eligibility at season's end; Turk and Cowart were both true sophomores this season; of the coverage unit, only Brian Smith and Coughlin are seniors – Smith has exhausted his eligibility. Shembo, Spond, Collinsworth, Wood, Jackson and Daniel Smith were true freshman in '10. Motta was a true sophomore this fall while Fox, a sophomore in class, has eligibility remaining through the 2013 season. Blanton and Filer will exhaust theirs following 2011.
Like Coughlin, Salvi served as a walk-on this fall and should return as a senior walk-on next season, as could Coughlin, should he apply for graduate work at the University.
Final Analysis: 72 yards by one player in Game Nine...1 yard by everyone else over the remaining 11. One play never loses a football game, but Johnson's punt return vs. the otherwise outstanding coverage units is one snap ST coach Mike Elston will revisit – and use as motivation – going forward.