Irish 5th-year senior Mike Anello knew before his season ended on The Coliseum turf that he wanted to return.
Return for 12 more Saturday’s full of the greatest athletic thrill most athletes will ever experience. Return to lead the nation’s No. 1-ranked kick coverage unit for one more season.
And to return for one last chance to vanquish the program’s chief rival of the last 80 years, a team that has destroyed Anello and his teammates to the tune of 76-3 over the last two seasons.
“When I was lying there I was just so frustrated because USC is the biggest game to me,” said Anello of the first quarter leg injury in Los Angeles that ended his 2008 season.
“But to be hurt was just so frustrating. I just kept thinking ‘why couldn’t this have happened at the end of the game?’
“The pain was really nothing I was just so upset that I wasn’t going to be able to play for the rest of that game.”
The rest of the game, of course, was ugly: No-chance, different-level-of-play; how many players do those guys have on the field? kind of ugly.
On Mike Anello’s final play of the 2008 season, with the score deadlocked at zero, Anello fought off a (solid) continuous downfield block and stopped punt returner Stafon Johnson for a two-yard gain. He made the tackle and broke his leg.
(“I wasn’t going to let go of that,” said Anello when I mentioned he technically made the play despite breaking his leg.)
“We have to win this game.” That’s what Anello told his head coach with 12:48 remaining in the first quarter. Of course, 20 healthy Mike Anello's wouldn't have made a difference last November 29, but 20 players mirroring his approach to the sport couldn't hurt on October 17, 2009, when the Men of Troy bring a seven-game series winning streak to South Bend.
But first thing's first...
Weis told the media about the latter part of his on-field exchange with Anello when he announced the team’s captains and leadership committee (of which Anello is a member) in mid-August.
“He told me that (lying) on the field with his broken leg, he said ‘I’m going to be back here for a fifth year and you can count on me for Nevada.’
“This kid is lying on the field and he’s thinking about the opener the next year because he (knew) that it was his last game.”
Weis continued to praise his 5th-year leader, who, in case you’ve watched Notre Dame broadcasts on MUTE over the last two seasons, also happens to be a former walk-on.
“Getting back to Michael…we always talk about ‘the walk-on made good’ but no one on the team looks at him as a walk-on, because this guy’s been a playmaker for a couple of years.
“We’re happy that he’s back here for a fifth year because we expect to get a lot of production out of him again.”
It’s in the Details
Anello might not approach the ridiculous numbers he amassed covering punts and kicks last season (23 tackles in 72 total opportunities). The loss of Safety and NFL gunner David Bruton will make Anello’s life tougher in punt coverage (more double teams) and on kick coverage (as quick and difficult to block as Anello is, Bruton’s raw speed and ability to cover kicks was an overlooked factor in last season’s No. 1 kick-coverage team ranking).
For more on Anello’s 2008 season, including a breakdown of each of the 23 punt and kick returns on which he made the tackle, click here.
Speed, desire, technique, discipline, and the athletic gift of breaking down at full speed and making a tackle all play a part in Anello’s ability to cover kicks and punts. But according to the human field position pendulum himself, there’s one more essential aspect to his success.
“First I watch a ton of film, so I like to know who I’m going against, how they’re taught (their individual technique or tendency he can find on film).
“I like to get a general knowledge of how they’re coached and what they like to do, and then from there I try to beat them off the line – as soon as I see open space, that’s when I accelerate and try to climb on top (once Anello is slightly ahead of the man still attempting to block him, he “climbs on top” which means he cuts in front of the defender while running full speed down the field – any block by that defender on Anello would then be illegal), then I locate the (punt returner) and get right to him.”
The art of covering kick-offs is a bit more involved for Anello, and far less individualized than that of his role in punt coverage.
“We have various keys with which I’ve worked with Coach Polian and Coach Brown – just identifying those keys is (the initial step) – usually when I’m coming off the right edge I’ll key (read) on the (opposing) tackle/guard and see where they’re blocking and where they’re setting. If I realize they’re not setting on me, I look to the wedge and see where that’s going, and finally I get to the returner.
“But you have to make sure you’re picking those (initial reads) guys up because if you’re not then you’re going to get ear-holed by someone.”
The result of this extensive film study? There wasn’t a single past opponent Anello could point to as his toughest competition. But there is one guy that has always given him problems:
“To be honest with you I’ve game planned so much that (there’s not one that sticks out), Anello began. “Actually (teammate) Raeshon McNeil was probably the hardest guy I’ve ever gone against. We battled (when Anello began on scout teams for the Irish in 2006) – he’d win won and I’d win one, and I’m not used to that…I think I should win all of them.”
The next three months and a Winter date TBD should afford Anello approximately 75-85 more chances to showcase his talents running under booted footballs, and he’ll cherish each of them.
“I know that playing here is something that’s incredibly special. You couldn’t have paid me enough to pass up another year (of college football) to enter the corporate world.
“Running out in front of 80,000 people, especially these fans, is second-to-nothing. These people care more about their sport than any other fans.”
Anello on our Breakdown of his 2008 Performance
On what I viewed as his best hit: a 1st quarter takedown at Washington
“(Smiling) that was a good hit…if you watch me get up I get a little slow because I really just threw myself into him – I live for those types of hits and I don’t get those all the time because I’m in the open field and I have to make sure I get the tackle. But when I get the opportunity to really lay it on them – I like to try to do that.”
(Anello was indeed noticeably dazed after “chopping down” Huskies KR Jordan Polk after a 16-yard return.)
On his only open-field whiff: missing at the goal line vs. Stanford
“Oh (gosh). I just watched that the other day, actually. It was probably going to be a safety – I watched it about 10 times and I was like ‘how did I miss that play’ it was set up perfectly. Next time I’m getting that one.”
(Teammate David Bruton nailed Stanford PR Doug Baldwin inside the three-yard line on the play.)
On the occasional role reversal of stopping opposing gunners (Anello is more often part of the punt block crew during Irish punt returns)
“(Knowledge of the gunner’s role) That helped in Navy game – they had a really good gunner and we wanted to shut him down.
“Raeshon (McNeil) and I were able to work well together and he actually didn’t make a tackle the entire game. I know what they’re (gunners) trying to do and I talked to Raeshon before the game and said, ‘look, this is our game plan…’ We went out and the (player) told Raeshon –‘I hate this. You guys are killing me.’
“Just having that knowledge of the position has helped me.”