Freshman running back George Atkinson has cemented his role as the main kick returner with Austin Collinsworth his fellow deep man. Atkinson averages 28.5 yards per return; as impressive – he’s at 23.8 yards per pop if you remove his 89-yard score vs. Michigan State.
The team’s kick return group has been the specialty units’ lone bright spot: Bennett Jackson, Jonas Gray, Chris Salvi, and Robby Toma (front line); Dan McCarthy, David Posluszny, and Steve Filer in triangle formation on the second line with linebacker Justin Utupo aligned behind them. Freshman linebacker Troy Niklas is the last blocker in front of the return tandem.
The team’s punt return unit remains an historically bad group, with previous return men Theo Riddick and John Goodman combining for three fumbles (two lost) and 0.3 yards per return (down a yard from last year’s historically bad 1.3 from lead return man Goodman.
Enter senior Michael Floyd, who asked for the role leading into the Air Force game. Floyd fair-caught his only offering vs. the Falcons. Regardless of the chosen return man, it’s the team’s blocking up front that has contributed to the unit’s struggles. Bennett Jackson, Lo Wood, Josh Atkinson, Jonas Gray, Austin Collinsworth, Steve Filer, Luke Massa, Robby Toma, Kendall Moore, and either Gary Gray or Robert Blanton are regulars among the evolving group.
Junior Ben Turk will handle the punting duties with David Ruffer on field goals. After hitting 23 straight to begin his career, the 5th-year senior place-kicker has missed five of his last nine dating back to last year’s bowl game. Turk averages a pedestrian 37.3 yards per punt, though he seems to have put behind him the shanks that defined the season’s opening contests.
Turk has had six punts fair caught and dropped nine inside the opponents’ 20-yard line, though poor kicks (from inside mid-field) have been part of that equation. The punt coverage group has struggled on the three times one of Turk’s punts have been fielded, allowing 21 yards per return – 118th in the nation.
Freshman Kyle Brindza serves as the kick-off specialist (7 touchbacks/2 out of bounds for penalty, with an average of 67 yards per boot). Junior Jordan Cowart broke his right hand in the Purdue game; he’ll compete with walk-on senior Ryan Kavanagh for long-snapping duties while center Braxston Cave handles the field goal and PAT snaps – Kavanagh is Ruffer’s trusted holder in that realm.
Finally, the Irish kick coverage group should again include the following: Josh Atkinson, Austin Collinsworth, Zeke Motta, Bennett Jackson, walk-on Chris Salvi, Steve Filer, Kendall Moore, Gary Gray, Troy Niklas, and Dan McCarthy. Notre Dame ranks 69th among 120 FBS teams covering kicks with a long against of 42 yards. Unlike the rest of the failing special teams, the kick coverage group is likely better than the numbers indicate.