The X-Factors

IrishEyes reviews its No. 7 rated position unit heading into August - the return teams.

Note: Each position is ranked according to my view of the groups entering the 2010 season. I've accounted for 2009 performance, apparent spring improvement, 2010 developed depth, and my own projection for 2010 (with an emphasis on the starters) as the determining factors.

For our No. 1 rated position unit and an explanation of the rankings, click here.

No. 2 Wide Receivers

No. 3 Outside Linebackers

No. 4 Running Backs

No. 5 Field Goal Unit

No. 6 Defensive Line

Kick Return Team

  • IrishEyes' 2010 Pre-Camp Rank: No. 7 behind the team's TE, WR, OLB, RB, Field Goal, and D-Line.
  • 2009 Pre-Season Ranking: 8 (of 11)
  • 2009 Post-Season Ranking: 7
  • Highest ranking I can envision at season's end: No. 3 behind TE and WR
  • Lowest ranking I can envision at season's end: Not much lower than this spot (8-9 if the new candidates suffer the inexcusable muffs/drops).

Pre-season National Acclaim: None

Position Coach: In addition to his duties as defensive line coach, Mike Elston will serve as the squad's special teams coordinator. He held the same role at Cincinnati last season and helped the Bearcats finished No. 2 nationally with 28.52 yards per kick return. Elston's group excelled returning kicks in 2008 as well, finishing 13th overall. Cincy finished 18th in punt return average (13.0) last season after a middling 49th-place finish in '08.

2009/208: Notre Dame finished 66th (KR) and 20th (PR) in 2009. The 20th nationally ranking as a punt return unit was largely dependent on Golden Tate's 87-yard punt return TD at Pittsburgh. In 2008, Notre Dame ranked 53rd (KR) and 60th (PR) nationally.

Punt Return Candidates: Tailback Armando Allen, wide receiver John Goodman, free safety Dan McCarthy, and strong safety Harrison Smith appeared to be the leading quartet of candidates heading into August. Free safety Jamoris Slaughter was also in the mix through the Blue Gold Game.

Kick Return Candidates: Wide Receivers Theo Riddick and Barry Gallup are possibilities after handling return duties in 2009. Tailback Cierre Wood and cornerback E.J. Banks are also expected to be in the mix. Allen and Goodman could certainly serve compete at KR as well.

Possible Incoming Challengers: Unlikely any, though early enrollee wide receiver Tai-ler Jones also auditioned as a punt returner during the spring. Jones will likely have his hands full fending off challengers for a starting wide receiver role in August. Former Irish cornerback Spencer Boyd (transferred to South Florida) could have been groomed for either the PR or KR role as a true freshman had he returned to South Bend.

Return Team Candidates: The options are plentiful, but the spring showed Robert Blanton and walk-on Chris Gurries as cornerbacks (battling vs. the opposing gunners) on the punt return unit while Jamoris Slaughter, Zeke Motta, Steve Filer, Brian Smith, Jonas Gray, and Matt Romine also worked with the group in April. Andrew Nuss worked with the return units (primarily kickoff) in 2009. Cornerback Gary Gray seems like a natural option outside vs. gunners as well.

Expect each of the team's four backup tight ends (Mike Ragone, Bobby Burger, Tyler Eifert, and Jake Golic) to factor into the mix as could incoming running back Cameron Roberson, as the fullback/tight end/big tailback skill set has proved invaluable on return units in the past. Former fullback and current backup inside linebacker Steve Paskorz should find a role on numerous special teams in the fall.

Incoming freshmen that could immediately contribute include Danny Spond and Derek Roback, as well as Prince Shembo, though a writer's speculation regarding freshmen special teams participation is guess-work at best, at least until mid-August.

Upon Further Review

Punt Return: Allen is the team's most experienced punt return option, but he hasn't served in the role since Week Four of 2008. Allen's longest career return was his second career offering, a 22-yard effort vs. San Diego State. His ensuing five returns yielded 9, 5, 0, 18, and (minus 1) yards, respectively …Goodman flashed his ability on his first career punt return, a 24-yard run back of a late-game Nevada punt last season. Serving as a backup to Tate, Goodman returned four late season punts for 10, 13, 1, and 10 yards in 2009….Its staggering to see how much turf Harrison Smith gobbles up with each stride, though his efforts I watched last spring were not with the defensive at full contact (full speed, but without the ability to hit him). Still, Smith is a darkhorse punt return candidate for 2010…Like Smith, McCarthy seemed at home with the ball in his hands. The former high school quarterback won't go down from a flailing arm tackle and sheer speed is overrated in a punt returner.

The Irish will be much better in the return game this season. For all of his offensive heroics, Golden Tate appeared disinterested as a punt returner until his incredible 87-yard touchdown to bring the Irish back in the contest at Pittsburgh last November (Tate favored the fair catch and had just one other solid return, a 23-yard run back vs. Michigan State in Week Three).

Kick Return: Riddick was solid if not spectacular as a true freshman in the lead kick return role, breaking only three returns in excess of 30 yards, none of which occurred after Week Six. Former head coach Charlie Weis never utilized him as a punt return option, though he did have Tate and Goodman to perform that task…Cierre Wood offered he would win the kick return role last August so its safe to assume we'll see him continue to lobby for the job this fall…E.J. Banks has the quick feet necessary for the role and he saw several reps as a kick return option in the spring…Gallup recorded the longest kick return of the season last year, a 52-yard run back at Michigan (followed by a 25-yard effort running through tackles), but his ensuing offers yielded no more than 22 yards.

Note: Though he appears to be a natural candidate, I did not witness sophomore wide receiver Shaquelle Evans as part of the return team options during the latter portions of the spring (nearly every RB, WR, and DB auditioned early).

Entering August Camp

At present I favor Goodman for the lead punt return role, though don't be surprised if Harrison Smith is used in some capacity as well (Smith can really move when there's a crease). Should Allen win the job and return one for a touchdown he'd become the first player since at least 1919 (and possibly before) to run, catch, throw, return a kick, and return a punt for a score in program history.

Part of Cincinnati's dynamic return efforts last season was due to the brilliance of All America Mardy Gilyard. But two Bearcats returned kicks for scores last season and Elston's 2007-2009 return teams accounted for eight return touchdowns (including two blocked punts).

There may be no Gilyard in the 2010 bunch, but the Irish have ample kick return options. Look for classmates Riddick and Wood to battle it out in August, with the Wood ceding if he earns a 1A tailback designation behind Armando Allen.

I asked Brian Kelly in his first 2010 spring press conference about the importance of special teams play for a struggling program. His response should serve as music to an Irish fan's ears:

"I think we should have outstanding presence on our special teams and there's no reason why we shouldn't be a dynamic team when it comes to those areas.

"I think a lot of teams tend to wait during spring practice, relative to special teams. We're going to get to work at it right away. I'm a big believer that you can (add) wins for your football team right away just by playing good special teams."

From 1986 through 1996, Lou Holtz's Irish enjoyed a comical special teams edge over their 132 collective opponents. Holtz's 11 Notre Dame squads returned 16 punts and 12 kickoffs for touchdowns. They allowed zero kick returns and a single punt return score in that same span.

The bar has been set.

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