Returning Regulars: Junior kicker Kyle Brindza and 5th-year senior kicker Nick Tausch as well as kick returners George Atkinson and Cam McDaniel. Top kick coverage competitors Joe Schmidt (a former walk-on) and Connor Cavalaris (a current walk-on) plus 2011 kick return standout blockers Kendall Moore and Justin Utupo -- neither of which was as effective in 2012 as the previous season. Utupo is unlikely to return to the role after gaining weight to play defensive end this fall. McDaniel, junior linebacker Jarrett Grace, sophomore linebacker Romeo Okwara, Moore, cornerback Josh Atkinson, and sophomore safety Nicky Baratti also regularly covered kicks and/or punts last fall.
Rookies -- Relative and Otherwise: Redshirt-freshman long-snapper Scott Daly, 5th-year senior transfer punter Alex Wulfeck, preferred walk-on freshman punter Anthony Antognoli, preferred walk-on freshman kicker John Chereson, and the punt return quartet of redshirt-freshman C.J. Prosise, seniors Austin Collinsworth and T.J. Jones, and junior transfer Amir Carlisle. Freshmen kick return candidates Tarean Folston and perhaps Max Redfield. Likely coverage contributors Devin Butler, James Onwualu, and Rashad Kinlaw.
Position Coach -- Scott Booker: Enters his second season in charge of the team's specialty units though the separate groups (punt, kickoff, both returns, snappers, field goal, etc.) are divided among the team's assistant coaches. Booker is the coordinator of the efforts, replacing Mike Elston in that role prior to the 2012 season.
Established Starter: Brindza as a place-kicker and kick-off specialist, but Tausch beat out Brindza for the lead place-kicker role last fall before suffering an injury in the win over Navy. Brindza stepped in, booted the winning field goal vs. Purdue one week later, and proceeded to set program records for field goals made (23) and attempted (31) over the course of the season.
Camp Buzz: The purported use of starters throughout the return and coverage units in an effort to inject life throughout the special teams. Said head coach Brian Kelly last March: "I want (our) starters to be a part of our special teams units, so the spring is really for us to integrate front-line guys. Every single (unit) is going to have the best players that we can get on there. And we're going to make them compete for those positions."
Current upperclassmen starters/key reserves that previously excelled on special teams as freshmen or sophomores include CB Bennett Jackson, TE Troy Niklas, S Austin Collinsworth (a lock for ST duties), LB Dan Fox, Carlo Calabrese (started on kick coverage vs. Alabama), and Jarrett Grace, RB George Atkinson (also quite strong in kick coverage as a frosh), LB Danny Spond, and WR Daniel Smith.
The Pressure is on… The quartet of punt returners. Its time Notre Dame put up a fight in the return game as have peer teams Kansas State, Florida State, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Oregon, Florida, Texas A&M, and Stanford -- each of which finished among the nation's Top 21 return units last fall -- each pressed or qualified for a BCS Bowl appearance. Notre Dame finished 116th.
Can Jones, Collinsworth, Prosise, and/or Carlisle give the unit a spark? Will anyone bother securing a block to make a return possible? How about more than one in each contest? The punt return world has changed since the advent of the spread punting formation, but other top programs have adapted -- its time for the Irish to win in the return game, especially in a season that promises between six and eight games will be played to close margins late.
The Battle is Between/Among… Brindza and a bunch. The junior will be pressed in camp by Tausch for the lead kicker role, though it's safe to assume Kelly will stick with his record-setter after the junior showed end-game mettle and the ability to bounce back from misses last fall.
But Brindza's attempting to win three jobs: place-kicker, kick-off specialist, and punter -- its hard to believe he'll maintain a stranglehold on all of them. Logic dictates he not be asked to punt from the shadow of the Irish goal in Ann Arbor as a first-time punter in a clutch situation…that's why 5th-year transfer Alex Wulfeck is on board -- and why preferred walk-on Andrew Antognoli chose Notre Dame over Harvard.
Wither? Bennett Jackson. The 2010 squad's best special teams player and the best coverage man of the Kelly era is firmly entrenched as a starting boundary cornerback. Coming off shoulder surgery that shelved him from contact this spring, would the staff consider using Jackson in congress with Collinsworth to form a top tier duo in kick and punt coverage?
An example of Notre Dame's best possible coverage unit would be comprised of 10 of the following
20 competitors: Jackson, Collinsworth, Niklas, Grace, Fox, Cavalaris, Schmidt, Baratti, Spond, Shumate, Moore, Farley, Prosise, George Atkinson, Daniel Smith, Keivarae Russell, and freshmen such as Jaylon Smith, Max Redfield, Rashad Butler, Michael Deeb, James Onwualu, and Devin Butler.
If 10 of those 20 accompany Brindza in kick coverage, or the punter and long-snapper Scott Daly in punt coverage, we'll know Kelly's spring words were more than off-season rhetoric.
BCS Dreams Because... Brindza was timely and clutch last fall, and Tausch is likely the most accomplished backup kicker in the nation, hitting 16 of 19 field goal attempts in his career, including 14 straight as a true freshman in 2009...Notre Dame has two reigning special teams player of the year winners -- Jackson and Collinsworth -- available…Freshmen such as Smith and Redfield, and potentially Deeb, Butler, Kinlaw and Folston, appear to be ideal rookie candidates to help…
Cause for Pause: Have you watched Notre Dame's special teams? There will likely be a drop-off from four-year starter Ben Turk in the punting game…There's a three-year history of hideous effort and production along the punt return unit…The Irish kick return blockers and chief return man Atkinson were decidedly mediocre last season…Notre Dame failed to cover kicks in a manner representative of a championship team last fall….The four coverage and return units (punt and kick) ranked 40th, 116th, 77th, and 93rd, respectively…So yeah, all of that.
Take it to the bank: Brindza will not be Notre Dame's punter for 13 games this season…The special teams player of the year will not be a offensive or defensive starter…Notre Dame's most improved coverage/return unit will be its kick return group this fall (77th in 2012).